Thomas Larcher: Naunz (ECM New Series 1747)


Thomas Larcher

Thomas Larcher piano
Thomas Demenga cello
Erich Höbarth violin
Recorded November 1999, Europahaus Mayrhofen, Austria
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

Austrian pianist Thomas Larcher, previously known to ECM New Series aficionados as a tactful interpreter of contemporary music, with Naunz shows his colors as a composer of the same. That Larcher is a close associate of Heinz Holliger, another musician-composer of immense talent, should come as no surprise: both compose as if through a microscope. Yet while Holliger tends to languish in protracted gazes at what lies beneath his cover slides, Larcher is more interested in compressions and calms before storms—in the message of the medium. The laser-precise title piece, written 1989 for piano, evokes a particular brain chemistry and cellular dysfunction…yet also a fractured, spatial sort of harmony. Its thirteen-and-a-half-minute duration holds a broad technical spectrum on the tongue: metallurgical hammerings, bright pops, and bluesy accents trade places in carousel fashion. Every note drips like a love-sworn face, open-mouthed, a scabbard without a sword.

Thomas Demenga pushes these images deeper into the fire in Vier Seiten (1998), throwing himself into jaggedly brushed scenery. Larcher’s trust in Demenga is obvious, for even the most challenging passages flow effortlessly at the cellist’s virtuosic touch. Ley lines crack in a symphony of such intimate proportions that the piece stabilizes, settling into meditative fog curls, a muscle torn to infinity. Further bowings are put on hold for the duration of two more piano pieces. The fractured yet resonant Noodivihik (1992) works at an even more cellular level. With scientific attention, Larcher expounds its polyphony in monosyllables while moments of clarity rub up against those of murky discomfort. Not every piece, however, is so overtly disjointed, for in such a piece as Klavierstück 1986 (the collection’s earliest composition) there is overt color-bleeding, punctuated by moments of insistence that fade into bodiless reflections.


The autobiographically inflected Kraken (1994-1997), a fascinating trio, revives Demenga and adds the violin of Erich Höbarth. In the latter’s playing is an Ysaÿe-like exuberance told yet in a language Larcher’s own, distinct for its obsessions. The entrance of piano after Höbarth’s pliant introduction lends a morose, titanic feeling of sunkenness. Violin lines evoke ghostly strangers from the wreckage, cleaving water and sky in kind. As a unit the trio forms a methodical braid, ponytail of a slumbering warrior. Larcher brings a percussive sound to his part, treading water in a marriage of staccato and legato impulses. The Holliger connection deepens as Demenga and Höbarth embark on a journey eerily reminiscent of his Duo for Violin and Cello before fragility and gnarled woodwork bring closure. Also bringing closure is the concluding Antennen-Requiem für H. (1999), an elusive piano piece that flirts with audibility by way of various extended techniques. Hands on the strings turn the instrument into a fast-forwarded film. It is a diegesis, an awakening, a genetic table setting loosed from its horizontal plane.

Larcher’s music is the equivalent of a postmortem. With a meticulousness that can only come out of self-discipline, he scours every body for clues of its demise. In so doing, he creates new life. Every helix begins a story.

Arnold Schönberg/Franz Schubert: Klavierstücke (ECM New Series 1667)


Arnold Schoenberg
Franz Schubert

Thomas Larcher piano
Recorded July 1998 at Radio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Consummation. This is what the piano music of Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951) and Franz Schubert (1979-1828) have in common, the bridge that Thomas Larcher brings to this welcoming solo recital, his first for ECM. To underscore this point, he shuffles Schönberg’s Klavierstücke op. 11 with Schubert’s posthumous Klavierstücke D 946. By turns halting and didactic, the opening pairing opens into the fresh air of Schubert’s precisely syncopated revelry. The contrasts between the two composers are obvious to the ear, but to the heart Schönberg is an extended exhalation to Schubert’s inhalation. Where Schönberg plots slow, jagged caverns, Schubert runs furtively above ground in the sunshine. Yet both seem so urgent to tell their stories, offering lifelong journeys from relatively young minds.

Similarly, the subtle miniatures that make up the Sechs kleine Klavierstücke op. 19 of Schönberg unfurl scrolls upon scrolls of experience, far into the future, where Schubert’s rolling Allegretto c-Mollo D 915 reads like a thrumming postscript.

One need not expound at great length in order to capture the spirit of this music. Its connections are fierce, their execution nimble as a dancer’s feet. Close your eyes, and let it show you a different sort of light.

Thomas Larcher: Ixxu (ECM New Series 1967)

Thomas Larcher

Rosamunde Quartett
Andrea Lauren Brown soprano
Christoph Poppen violin
Thomas Demenga violoncello
Thomas Larcher piano
Recorded July 2005, August-Everding-Saal, Grünwald
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Illness is many things. Indisposition, an amalgamation of cause and symptom, a clinical mystery and emotional nightmare. Thomas Larcher seems less interested in these polarities, however, and more in the sinews that connect them. For him, the notion of illness lives by a fragmented language. Ixxu, ECM’s second disc dedicated to the work of the Austrian composer, is thus a force to be reckoned with. It’s not that each of these world premiere recordings is particularly weighty, but more so that the sheer difficulty of their interpretation and execution is palpable. This is not for mere effect, but rather done in the interest of expanding musical languages to the point of distention. In the composer’s words: “I’m not interested in using shock techniques to flaunt the novelty of my architecture. I want to arrange and enhance the elements so as to produce new expressive values.”

The title string quartet (1998-2004), for one, proves that Larcher’s is a unique compositional voice when such distinction is sometimes hard to come by. He is rhythmically astute, melodically complex, and simply tantalizing to listen to. High-pitched whispers make for organic contrast to the music’s underbelly, culminating in the final movement with haunting charm. Another string quartet, Cold Farmer (1990), ends the album in Hartke territory, with just a touch of Schnittke and Riley to be found in due measure. Its equal dose of whimsy and magical realism make for a composition that would easily fit into the Kronos Quartet’s repertoire, and which completes the frame around the album’s masterful center. In the hands of the ever-capable Rosamunde Quartett, these pieces glitter.

My illness is the medicine I need (2002) for soprano, violin, violoncello and piano is indeed a most competent stroke in the realm of textual settings—these, medical patient statements found, of all places, in a Benetton Colors magazine. Soprano Andrea Lauren Brown embodies in its deft unraveling the very reenactment of a quantifiable cause, so that one’s illness indeed does becomes the only source for its cure. This is symptomatic music par excellence, and pairs well with Mumien (2001/02) for violoncello and piano. What begins as a staccato agitation ends up a handful of threads drawn into a single focused line. The rhythmic integrity of Larcher’s piano is a constant presence, while Thomas Demenga’s cello is the empathic observer, clarifying intentions with every turn of phrase.

The music of Ixxu has the quality of certain nursery rhymes: on the surface playful, perhaps full of holes, yet betraying an amazing wealth of morbid fascination just beneath the surface. Make these your bedtime stories, and you won’t be disappointed.

Thomas Larcher: Madhares (ECM New Series 2111)


Thomas Larcher

Till Fellner piano
Kim Kashkashian viola
Thomas Larcher piano
Quatuor Diotima
Naaman Sluchin violin
Yun Peng Zhao violin
Frank Chevalier viola
Pierre Morlet violoncello
Münchener Kammerorchester
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.