Till Fellner piano
Kim Kashkashian viola
Thomas Larcher piano
Naaman Sluchin violin
Yun Peng Zhao violin
Frank Chevalier viola
Pierre Morlet violoncello
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Recorded August 2008 (Böse Zellen, Still), Bavaria Musikstudios, München; July 2009 (Madhares), Liederkranzhalle, Stuttgart
Engineers: Stephan Schellmann and Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
A student of Werner Pirchner, who introduced the prodigious pianist to the many expansions that jazz had to offer, Thomas Larcher was led onto his distinctive compositional path at the encouragement of Heinz Holliger, Dennis Russell Davies, and Manfred Eicher. All the better for us at the listening end of his continually evolving spectrum. In this, the third disc devoted entirely to his music, Larcher’s voice comes into greater focus, even as it further refracts itself in the process.
As if drawing on My illness is the medicine I need from his previous ECM effort, Ixxu, Larcher inoculates us with his Böse Zellen (Malign Cells) for piano and orchestra (2006, rev. 2007). We know its opening siren calls are deathly close, yet they seem so far away as to be harmless. This contradiction of thought and effect curls itself into the melodic helix down which every note slides. Fellow Austrian Till Fellner proves himself to be more than up to the challenge as he navigates the percussive terrain of his prepared piano with unpretentious expertise. Moments of lyrical beauty mesh with decay to wondrous effect, moving like a forgotten Petri dish that has sprouted legs and wandered out into the open world. If an anatomical diagram is the only way of exposing the unseen without killing the organism, then this music succeeds in creating a living model.
Each of the two movements of Still for viola and chamber orchestra (2002, rev. 2004) is marked “Fließend” (Flowing), and that they most certainly are. Kim Kashkashian twists yet another indestructible braid from her instrument as she spins long nocturnal fibers from a cloudless sky. These she ties around us and tugs our minds into deeper dreams, where traumas share an equal footing with their resolutions. And so, what appear to be physiological agitations in the second half begin to take on, at least in retrospect, a catalyst quality, each the doorway to another doorway (ad infinitum). In spite of, or perhaps because of, these disruptions, I find Still to be the most endearing of the selections on this disc. This is due in no small part to the rough-hewn solidity of its performance, but also to its animating spirit. The strings speak at every moment, not so much conversationally as descriptively, and in so doing open a linguistic trap door into which this listener is more than happy to jump.
Before knowing that Larcher’s Third String Quartet (2006/7), from which the album borrows its title, referred to the so-called White Mountains of Crete, my mind was filled with images of mentally unstable rabbits. And while the music is anything but insane, I like the image, if only for its fragmentary implications. It would seem the composer means us to take even its allusive location with a grain of salt: having only visited the Madhares through word of mouth while vacationing in Crete, he forgoes its sharp contours in favor of “a utopian place, somewhere far away from where I am—possibly completely beyond reach.” Those last two words, “beyond reach,” characterize the music far more accurately than my own initial juvenile assumptions, as it constantly skirts the edge of cognizance with its ecstatic outbursts of moonlight amid a host of meditative shadows.
Larcher’s fondness for extended techniques, which include anything from musician-determined time signatures to coins threaded between violin strings, reflects a mind respectful of instrumental architecture. His is a direct, heart-to-heart sound. Walking a not-always-so-clearly-delineated line somewhere between Helmut Lachenmann and Alexander Knaifel, Larcher plots the rare distinctive curve among countless straight lines. Equal parts stimulant and sedative, his music averages out into an ultimately neutral equation, where value is determined only by deployment, or else left to fade in its own bondage to time.
Recorded with ECM’s bar-raising clarity, this album also marks the label debut of the immensely talented Quatuor Diotima, whose commitment to contemporary music shows in every moment of this raw performance. Let’s hope we’ll see them again soon.