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Takemitsu & Larcher

Free Radicals: the Music of Thomas Larcher

Toru Takemitsu: Rain Coming

Thomas Larcher: Die Nacht der Verlorenen (wp)

Thomas Larcher: Antennas ... Requiem for H

Toru Takemitsu: Tree Line

Thomas Larcher: Böse Zellen (ukp)


London Sinfonietta/Martyn Brabbins; Mathias Goerne, baritone; Thomas Larcher, piano


Queen Elizabeth Hall, 30 September 2008


As part of the advance promotion for this concert, the London Sinfonietta provided a video
[link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lq0JqImnmek] in which Thomas Larcher demonstrates some of the piano effects that appear in in his piano concerto Böse Zellen (heard here in its first UK performance). The most teasing of these is the use of a giant ball-bearing from an industrial water turbine to slide along the strings of the piano and thus create otherwise impossible glissando effects. It's a little disappointing, then, to find in the piece itself that what looked like off-the-cuff demonstrations in fact amount to substantial chunks of the piano solo material. The score is divided into four movements, the first of which – admittedly quite short – really is little more than an exhibition of the giant ball-bearing/piano glissando trick; and it returns at the end of the third movement.

I couldn't get past the impression that lots of this piece sounded like workshopped ideas presented in the raw. The three short piano solos played by Larcher at the start of the second half (Antennas) really were just quick improvisations inside the body of the piano. Much of Böse Zellen was aurally arresting in the moment, but was hamstrung over time by four-square rhythms, clunky transitions and a limited sense of formal development.


The orchestrations were among the most attractive aspects of Larcher's two pieces. In the first half we heard the world première of his song cycle Die Nacht der Verlorenen, to unfinished texts by Ingeborg Bachmann. This was certainly the better of the two pieces, having a momentum and an attention to detail less evident in the piano concerto. Particularly striking was Larcher's use of vocal and instrumental doubling. Several aspects of the vocal writing - including few large leaps and a tendency to rest on single repeated pitches - suggested that Larcher had been particularly careful to ease Mathias Goerne's passage into the work, and it should be noted that Goerne rewarded him with a fiery and committed performance that barely stopped for breath. The doublings were no doubt there in part to support the singer, but some unusual combinations gave rise to some lovely effects: a favourite of mine was voice and soft tremolo marimba in the third song.

But at the end I was still unsure of Larcher's true voice: both pieces had a tendency to lurch awkwardly from style to style. For an assortment of reasons Jarrell, Penderecki and Adès all crossed my mind. In one of the most eyebrow-raising juxtapositions, a passage of avant-garde sound effects (including the double bass player taking up the eerie-sounding waterphone) at the end of the second song leaps into Vaughan Williams-y parallel string harmonies at the start of the third. What a contrast to the two Takemitsu pieces that were presented alongside, which were unforced, unassuming, not quite like anything else and totally convincing. Larcher programmed both these pieces because he feels a strong personal affinity with the Japanese composer, but where Takemitsu's precise feathery flutterings reminded us that leaves blowing in the breeze are still shaped by the wind, Larcher's music lay scattered about with few clues as to how it all came to rest where it did.


Tim Rutherford-Johnson