Free Radicals – Thomas Larcher

Rain Coming
Die Nacht der Verlorenen [Southbank Centre and Casa da Musica, Porto co-commission: World premiere]
Antennas … Requiem for H
Böse Zellen (Piano Concerto) [UK premiere]
Tree Line

Matthias Goerne (baritone)

Thomas Larcher (piano)

London Sinfonietta
Martyn Brabbins

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 30 September, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Thomas LarcherThe London Sinfonietta’s 41st season commenced with a concert focussing on the music of Thomas Larcher, the Austrian composer (born 1963) who is more familiar here as a pianist (indeed, his pianism was the highlight of a performance of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time at this year’s Proms.

Speaking prior to the second half, Larcher spoke about not feeling part of the current Austrian new music scene: that he is no slouch when it comes to contemporary techniques was demonstrated, however, by Antennas … Requiem for H (1999) – six minutes of electro-acoustic piano gestures that put a soundworld variously associated with Lachenmann and Sciarrino to thoughtfully inventive use.

Equally intriguing in its more elaborate way is Böse Zellen (2006) – a ‘piano concerto’ commissioned after the manner of Mozart’s E flat Piano Concerto (K482), though with its title and formal follow-through derived from the film “Free Radicals” by Barbara Albert. Musically the piece emerges (without developing as such) from a number of distinctive motifs distributed between pianist and ensemble, thus creating an evocative context for whatever scenario is implied – though ambivalent undertones seldom seem far from the surface. That it can be appreciated as a self-sufficient concert work is equally apparent, thanks to the sheer expressive poise of its content as well as the technical mastery which Larcher displayed in the understated yet demanding solo part – itself exquisitely dovetailed into the orchestral texture.

Matthias Goerne. ©G. Paul BurnettLarcher’s biggest contribution to the evening, however, came with the world premiere of “Die Nacht der Verlorenen” (The Night of the Lost) – a song-cycle after Ingeborg Bachmann. Those who know the German author through her collaborations with Hans Werner Henze might have been surprised at the compression of the verse set here, all from a volume of fragmentary and unfinished poems published as recently as 2000. Larcher recalled the controversy this volume aroused – in that its content had, by definition, little or nothing of the objectivity Bachmann was at pains to secure; thus its publication could be thought a disservice to her memory. That said, its emotional potency is a ready incitement to setting, and there can be no doubt that Larcher has approached the task with absolute sincerity.

A quality that in itself, though, is not enough to sustain a work of nearly a half-hour’s length without the music being at least equal in its actual substance to the texts. And here it is Larcher’s seeming desire to create a song-cycle audibly within the tradition of its genre that may be at fault; these six settings being awash with stylistic allusions (whether conscious or otherwise) to ‘what came before’ such that the work takes the guise of a commentary on said tradition in which the Bachmann poems had become a background to music which was itself little more than the generalised commentary on what was being expressed. This lack of a personal or an intrinsic focal-point meant that the work as a whole has little of import to convey about its subject-matter and, in consequence, to the listener.

All of which was a pity given the quality of this performance – with Matthias Goerne confirming why he has few equals among present-day lyric baritones, and Martyn Brabbins securing an appropriately detailed yet luminous response from the Sinfonietta.

Larcher’s stylistic independence was further evident in his choosing two works by Takemitsu to round out the evening. In its approach to tonality and texture, Rain Coming (1982) is among the most fluid of the Japanese composer’s later ensemble works, and enticingly played here, with Tree Line (1988) among his most finely realised; descriptive means married to musical ends with an effortlessness not always found in the music of Takemitsu’s final decade. Little wonder it has proved among the most durable of the Sinfonietta’s commissions.

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