Mahler Blumine (1884) Larcher Symphony no.3 ‘A Line above the Sky’ (2018-19) [CBSO Centenary Commission: UK Premiere] Mahler Symphony no.1 in D major (1887-88. rev. 1898)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Gergely Madaras
Symphony Hall, Birmingham Thursday 12 January 2023
Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse Pictures below (c) Hannah Fathers
Following on its customary Viennese New Year concert, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra continued 2023 with this coupling of Austrian symphonies – Mahler’s first such effort being juxtaposed with one of the most substantial among the orchestra’s Centenary Commissions.
Chamber and vocal pieces having established his name, Thomas Larcher has since tackled the symphonic genre with a vengeance – his Third Symphony, inspired by the ultimately tragic exploits of mountaineer Tom Ballard, considering notions of the elevated and sublime across two (more or less) continuous movements as articulated by an orchestra awash with untuned percussion plus an arresting ‘keyboard’ section of piano, celesta, cimbalom and accordion. The timbral and textural range was accordingly wide, though the tendency to veer between passages of amorphous pitch and those where an insipid modality too often failed to afford resolution or fulfilment – whether in those abrupt contrasts of the initial movement or more cumulative unfolding of its successor – meant the whole felt less than the sum of its parts.
Not in doubt was the excellence of the performance, the CBSO audibly attuned to the many expressive nuances of Larcher’s writing with Gergely Madaras (above) securing a traversal which endowed the piece with a logic and cohesion as might otherwise have been more apparent than real. Already performed in Brno, Bregenz, Amsterdam and Valladolid, this marks a further intriguing stage in its composer’s symphonic odyssey and certainly asks the right questions even if the answers seem, at least on a first hearing, to be less than convincing.
Much the same was doubtless levelled at Mahler’s ‘Symphonic Poem in Two Parts’ on its Budapest premiere in 1889 and while what had become his First Symphony almost a decade later does away with even a vestigial programme, it remains a difficult piece to make cohere. Madaras succeeded admirably for the most part – adroitly negotiating the first movement’s quirky unfolding from shimmering miasma, via folk-like geniality, to ecstatic arrival; then imbuing the scherzo with an appealing rusticity, though not even such subtle inflections of phrasing could make the trio sound less mundane than it is. As so often, the highlight was a ‘funeral march’ whose gaunt double-bass melody (eloquently rendered by Anthony Alcock) launched a movement whose intermingled irony and pathos was judiciously characterized.
Madaras duly had the measure of an infernal finale whose martial opening stage brought a visceral response from the CBSO (above), its strings heard to enticing effect in the languorous (but not too cloying) melody that follows. The central climax was finely prepared, and if more might have been made of that otherworldly passage where the main motifs are recalled as though through the ether, the approach to the peroration was vividly sustained – standing horns and trombones adding to the impact of the closing pages in their unabashed overkill.
It was astute programming to open with Blumine, salvaged by Mahler from earlier incidental music as second movement in early hearings of this symphony only to be excised thereafter. With trumpeter Jason Lewis heard to enticing effect, it here made for an atmospheric entrée.
Composer Thomas Larcher (above) talks with Arcana editor Ben Hogwood about his music, and what we can expect from his upcoming residency at the Aldeburgh International Festival
The 72nd Aldeburgh Festival begins this weekend, and there are three artists-in-residence: tenor Mark Padmore, soprano / conductor Barbara Hannigan and the Austrian composer Thomas Larcher.
Larcher’s music has received good coverage in the last decade in particular, with a number of recordings released on the ECM label, but this portrait of his output will make an even wider appraisal possible. With music ranging from solo piano right through to large orchestra, there will also be a chance to catch the second performance – and UK premiere – of his first opera, The Hunting Gun.
We start by talking of Larcher’s memories of the festival – or not, as the case may be! “Let me say I haven’t had any experiences so far!” he says cheerily. “I visited Aldeburgh a year ago at the planning stage for what’s happening now, but I’ve never played a concert there and I don’t think a piece by me has ever been played there. This year’s program all comes through my friendship with Roger Wright, who once commissioned a piece from me for the Proms (the Double Concerto for violin, cello and orchestra, performed by Viktoria Mullova and Matthew Barley). Since then we’ve been in touch, and he has always been very pleasant and friendly. I had the feeling that he is a person who speaks on one level, face to face with a composer, and not from the top down like a big promoter. I felt very much at home at the Proms because of that.”
There is a palpable excitement around the UK premiere of The Hunting Gun, which received very positive reviews from its premiere at the Bregenz Festival in Larcher’s home country Austria. He confirms the approach will be similar. “It will be the same staging as it was in Bregenz, and I know they have been working on the details. I think the main difference will be space. The hall is wonderful with a really good sound, whereas in Bregenz we were in a huge box, more or less. Everyone there said you will need amplification, as there was a lot of noise around from lights and fans. There was the possibility of amplification but we will see how it works out with the full orchestra. For example we didn’t have a pit in Bregenz, so we were all on the same level, but now the orchestra is down in the pit, which should make things feel more free. I hope it will be more intimate in the level of sound.”
Did working on a much larger composition bring out new properties in Larcher’s own writing? He considers the question. “On paper it is not such a big score. There are 19 or something players and a little choir, and the soloists. There are two elements I can mention, however. The first one is coming from the text (the opera is based on a Japanese novella from 1945). I find this little book by Yasushi Inoue (below) highly fascinating. I couldn’t start before I was really sure about how the text would evolve, how we could compress this quite complex novel into quite small pages of text, because I feel that operas – the texts are too long. My girlfriend Friederike Gösweiner, who is the librettist, has found a way to really keep the soul of this novel alive but still reduce it and condense it to something very precise and with very few words. I loved it. So already I could say some of the music had formed before I started.”
And the second element? “Something I had never done before was the integration of the chorus. The chorus is a hybrid thing, staging it as seated with the orchestra. It is a connection between the orchestra and the soloists, it is an amplifier of the soloists and they symbolise the echo room of the persons on stage, the psychological echo room. They have various functions which you can define or not define, but this whole mixture of the ensemble and the chorus proved to be highly interesting for me.”
A sizeable problem facing today’s composers is the difficulty in getting not just first but second performances of their works. To that end it must be very satisfying for Larcher having a sequel on which to rely relatively quickly after the first, and on such a major stage as Aldeburgh? “Yes, it’s really great. I can’t be thankful enough for having as an artist in residence. It’s a great festival and I think Roger has also with other people chosen an excellent solution for the music with Ryan Wigglesworth conducting. It’s all first rate and I’m very curious to hear it. The other day I heard it will also be on stage at Amsterdam as part of the Holland festival. Pierre Audi has invited me to be part of that.”
As a listener it can also be hard to get a second hearing for a new piece that you really want to hear again, so it is satisfying from that point of view also. “I think or I hope that I’m already contributing to changing the situation”, he says, “as I am getting slower and slower at writing! I will leave less pieces so that hopefully they will have half a chance to be played more often! I can’t speak for others but I think the amount of pieces being thrown out is enormous. Of course it is a frustration for composers when their pieces are not played again, and as we know a piece needs some time to grow, to develop and even to be corrected, the mistakes that everyone always makes. These chances don’t come too often. I cannot speak about this because I don’t have this experience, but that is such a lucky situation which is quite unique. I am very thankful to all my players, conductors and orchestras that program existing pieces. It is wonderful for me but should be that way for a lot more composers.”
This year’s Festival will offer a chance for listeners to take in another new Larcher work, the Movement for solo piano which will be played by Paul Lewis. “The Movement was the first piece I could really tackle after having written the opera,” he explains. “In a way I felt as though I was coming out of this huge tunnel, and the Movement was quite a liberation from that. I always have problems writing for piano because I used to be a concert pianist, and would play everything from J.S. Bach to Olga Neuwirth, and I played with so many conductors from Claudio Abbado to Frans Welser-Möst and Paavo Jarvi. Each time I wanted to write something for piano I thought why do I know this – oh no, it’s from Messiaen or Schoenberg, and I was revisiting music I had already played! I prepared the piano so that it became a new instrument for me, and it was more coverable than the well known natural sound. Here again I got myself into a state of going into a new piece and just writing for a ‘normal’ piano was so liberating, a very good experience for me.”
On the festival’s third day Paul Lewis will join Larcher and Mark Padmore for a concert including the Padmore Cycle, a collection of eleven pieces written for the tenor. Their partnership clearly holds a special place for Larcher. “That piece was very important for me and meaningful too. We really embraced the text, and it’s more about going for the text over the quality of the voice, it’s very important. The music meets something in me, but if the text is not right then it does not work. For me, writing for the voice is strongly connected with writing for Mark. For the Padmore Cycle, two friends who wrote the texts for it (Hans Aschenwald and Alois Hotschnig). I deliberately chose texts from these two writers close to me, and so I practically formed my own cycle. By choosing different things you show yourself by what you prefer and what you don’t want to be shown. The unifying force behind all that was Mark, and so it was excellent to write the piece with him. There are three versions of this piece already – the original one that will be heard at the festival, with piano – then there is another one with voice and piano trio and a third with voice and big orchestra.”
Larcher has often spoken of the importance of tonal music, though he shies away from what could be seen as more obvious clichés within his writing. Is that an approach he maintains? “Yes, although it has widened in a sense. If you go through film music it’s always so that the feel is tonal, major or minor, but the horror films have passages that are atonal, with the birds flying – passages that make you think of Hitchcock! In a way that is a shame, but it’s also a cliché with a reason. I think you have to be aware of that, and that you don’t fall into the trap of always over-using those clichés – for example in films they will think of using Arvo Pärt for a solemn scene and Ligeti for a horror trip. I have tried to explore something like multi-tonality and have different threads of tonal music interweaving, or even going on the other hand going to tonal regions when it’s a dramatic scene. I like to juxtapose different tonalities or patterns of chords to make those boundaries more flexible or accessible, and not stand still in those clichés. I think there are so many possibilities still, even though there are only 12 tones, to create new and interesting tonal material. I think we have not reached the end of the road, and I cannot tell how far I will go there but it’s definitely for me! I can’t say I don’t care about tonality or not tonality, but I try to find a way for having complexity in accessible audible forms.
Larcher will be at the Aldeburgh Festival for its duration, taking in the performances of his music all the way through to the Cello Concerto (Ouroboros) on Sunday 23 June with Alisa Weilerstein and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner. “By then I will be an Aldeburgh citizen, a resident of Snape!” he jokes.
Yet it seems The Hunting Gun will fit in very well with the festival, for its scale and plot alone. “Absolutely, with the beach as well! Maybe one day it should be staged in front of the atomic power station, which nobody mentions when speaking about Aldeburgh?! I learned about it when I saw pictures by David Lynch of this power plant, so maybe his interest says there should be something done there at that point.”
Sizewell B (n.b. this picture is not by David Lynch!)
Talk turns to music and culture outside of what we might call ‘classical’ music. “I mentioned David Lynch because there are some very powerful photographs of his with power plants on them, they are very dark – and I was amazed how much of the atmosphere he can display in his films, and how it could be transported into a single black and white picture. This I found quite strong. Regarding art, of course I do have a lot of friends. I grew up in Vienna where I studied more at the Art Academy than the Music Academy in my spare time, because it was far more vibrant, far more interesting, and there were nicer girls! I spent a lot of time there and it had some substantial influences. I painted a lot as a child. Even now I am a passionate photographer whenever I can be. Today everyone is a photographer of course but for me taking photos and scribbling things down shows me how I work as a musician also, with methods and writing. How you construct these things has different layers, and I see clearer with a photograph than when I sit in front of my music sheets.
Regarding the music I experienced from 15 there was a jazz club in the town where everyone played, from Pat Metheny to Chick Corea, and from Art Ensemble of Chicago (above) to Dino Saluzzi – all of the jazz greats. This was so liberating for me at the time, it was a way out of this really boring classical scene as I had experienced it in the region. There were a lot of frustrated musicians who were speaking of a big musical world outside of this region, but it didn’t happen here! Sitting frustrated in a teaching job, I couldn’t imagine there would be something like that living in music. When someone like the Art Ensemble comes to your town and delivers their show or Art Pepper and all of those players it was the greatest thing that could happen. A new world opened up to me and showed me this was life and not a prison!
Exposure to these arts surely helps when writing an opera? “Yes, although I obviously trust in the different crafts, so I wouldn’t be a multi-disciplined artist because I am simply not able to, and I am interested in what other people bring into the process. I really like to learn from other disciplines, and be open for what comes into your cosmos as well.”
As artist-in-residence at this year’s Aldeburgh International Festival, Thomas Larcher can look forward to a number of performances of his work, with the UK premiere of The Hunting Gun, the world premiere of Movement, A Padmore Cycle performed with its dedicatee and performances of string quartets and orchestral works. For full details visit the Aldeburgh Festival website. For more information on Thomas Larcher, you can visit his website
The playlist below gives an introduction to his music through available recordings:
For the latest in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series it’s a family interview, with Sam Hogwood (niece of the editor, above!) giving her verdict on the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s varied Prom.
Prom 40: Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Robin Ticciati
Brahms Tragic Overture Op.81 (1880)
Berg Violin Concerto (1935)
Thomas Larcher Nocturne – Insomnia (first UK performance) (2008)
Schumann Symphony no.3 in E flat major Op.97, ‘Rhenish’ (1850)
You can listen to this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here
ARCANA: Sam, how would you describe your musical upbringing?
I guess I was privileged in the fact that I got to learn the flute. My earliest memories of music are dancing to my dad’s dance music, and then the radio – the top 40 and dance music with the odd rogue track thrown in – my first record that I ever bought was Donald, Where’s Your Trousers?! I remember buying that and being really pleased with myself! I also remember listening to Peter and the Wolf on my dad’s record player, and there were a few more classical pieces. There was one, a scary story that came with a book – Cranston Thorndike & The Dragon, by Terry Loughlin. We used to have that and play it quite a bit.
With people playing instruments it was you (me playing the cello – ed!) and also my aunt, Clare – I idolized her playing the flute so thought I should do that. When my brother Daniel was doing keyboards, and it turned out she was doing flute my mum and dad got me lessons. So it was a rich and varied upbringing!
Could you name three musical acts you love, and why you love them?
It’s tricky, I’m terrible with favourites! I would say the Foo Fighters, because of the energy they bring on to the stage. I think it’s the way Dave Grohl commands the crowd, no matter how many times you’ve seen them and wherever you’ve seen them it’s always immense.
I think Arcade Fire too, the first time I saw them was at Reading. To see how many of them there were on stage, and the variety of instruments they had – one of them would just suddenly whip out the hurdy gurdy! The fact a few of them would play three or four instruments, and go between them in songs – not even between songs – that’s just mad.
The third one would be The Killers I think. I’ve seen them quite a few times, and again it’s just a great show – because Brandon Flowers is such a great front man. He commands such energy, and demands it back from the crowd at the same time. It’s not just the band, he’s a show man.
How would your experience of the Proms compare with the live music you’ve seen?
I would say it’s more thought provoking, because of the silence. Even though you’ve got the music, there is an incredible amount of silence, whereas I would say that in concerts that aren’t classical there is such a din because of the crowd. That means you’re not necessarily appreciating the musicianship, whereas at the Proms, because there is such a silence, you’d pick up a wrong note or something out of time. There is a lot more pressure on it, and it commands a lot more with the lows and the highs, and it really gets you. There is also the element of deciphering the elements, whereas with pop concerts you are listening more as a whole.
What did you think of the first piece, the Brahms Tragic Overture?
I really enjoyed that. I think for some reason I hadn’t thought before how complementary the wind section is to the strings, and there were points where they were hitting the same notes where I couldn’t tell if it was the violins or the winds. They hit that same point, and then they separate so you can really hear the flutes, and their pitch. Something else I hadn’t really appreciated was with the vast number of strings, and how two flutes commanded as much impact with their melodies.
What did you think of the Berg Violin Concerto?
I enjoyed it. I thought it was interesting. I don’t know a lot about the orchestras, but I assumed the lead violinist, watching him – you could see why he needed to stand up, for space to express himself with the music. It was interesting, how it’s called a Violin Concerto but all the other instruments played throughout as well.
And what did you think of the new Thomas Larcher piece, Insomnia-Nocturne?
I thought about the idea of seeing colours in music that we talked about in the interval, but I thought for me it’s definitely emotion when I listen to music. I definitely thought in this piece a lot of it was very dark and anxious. It made you feel concerned, and it was heavy to the point that when it reached a dream state it was really quite a relief! When it’s that intense, linking back to film, you know why they use certain music in film. If you were to watch a horror film stripped of its music you wouldn’t think too much of it, but it’s the way the music is used that really gets you!
What was your verdict on the Schumann, after that?
It was lovely, and I’m really pleased they finished with that! It was like a magical fairy tale, and then the fourth section got quite dark and dangerous, and then it lightened off again. I thought some of the writing in the book, about the composer and their lives, was entertaining, but then it makes sense later on with what it said about Schumann.
Did you find the notes helpful, reading about the composer while the music is being played?
It’s interesting to read about the origins of the music, but I think it’s a side bit of information because with music you feel your own thing anyway. In the second piece, with the undercurrent about his mistress – you could put that out there but it’s like art, with a brush stroke on a page. The background to it almost becomes irrelevant to the art piece itself. You look at some art works and it tells you how evocative it is, but you look at it and think, ‘I’m not really getting that’ You see it for what it is. I went in the Tate Modern last month and saw the new exhibits, with fire bricks and spirit levels. I’m all for appreciating art but there are some pieces I don’t get, and even as an installation piece I don’t see what you’re telling me!
Thinking of the Proms, was there anything you particularly enjoyed?
The atmosphere; getting to appreciate classical music in a silent state. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a room with so many other people who have been quiet for such a long period of time for a specific reason. With everything else it’s like the more noise the better, everything gets turned up, but with this if you even cough people stare at you. The musicians are that well skilled that some of the music they play is so soft, and if you’re not silent you’re not going to hear it. Having listened to classical music on the radio and now in a room it was very different.
If you could change anything about the Proms, what would you do?
I’d have the performers sat on the back tiers. When we came to see Bring Me The Horizon with an orchestra here, they were sat on the back three tiers, up quite high. Even if you were on the floor you could see them, whereas this time you could only see them if you were on a level above. I appreciate some people have just come to listen and are not so bothered about the visual aspect, but from a technical point of view I would definitely prefer to see them, it gives the music that bit more.
Prom 40: Christian Tetzlaff (violin), Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Robin Ticciati
Brahms Tragic Overture Op.81 (1880)
Berg Violin Concerto (1935)
Thomas Larcher Nocturne – Insomnia (first UK performance) (2008)
Schumann Symphony no.3 in E flat major Op.97, ‘Rhenish’ (1850)
Royal Albert Hall, Tuesday 15 August 2017
You can listen to this Prom here for 28 days from the date of the performance
The Scottish Chamber Orchestra are one of the UK’s finest ensembles, and they proved their worth once again with outgoing chief conductor Robin Ticciati leading a fine Prom tracing a course from darkness to light.
Brahms’s Tragic Overture is one of the composer’s deepest orchestral statements, and Ticciati was determined to present its steely side. Often the strings were without vibrato, the lean sound complemented by raucous horns and open textures in the woodwind. Lower strings growled ominously, and only the softer woodwind passages offered occasional respite in their beautifully choreographed choir.
Berg’s Violin Concerto contains music of similarly ominous qualities, in this case uncannily heralding the composer’s final year despite its dedication elsewhere. Though the violin begins with elegiac tones it has a broad emotional range, and Christian Tetzlaff (above) rose magnificently to the occasion, finding Berg’s many and varied colours but crucially balancing them with the excellent orchestral contributions.
The coded messages Berg inserts into the music were on occasion stripped bare, and the anger at the heart of the second movement was almost completely unconcealed. Its crowning moment lies in quiet simplicity, however, and when the quotation of Bach’s chorale Es Is Genug arrived on clarinets the mellow tones were deeply moving. Capping the concerto with his rise to a high ‘G’ at the end, Tetzlaff held the note at a barely audible volume so that it sounded like one last breath in his ascent to another world.
As the evening progressed the darkness drew in ever more closely for Thomas Larcher’s Insomnia – Nocturne, an orchestral piece receiving its first UK performance. Written for a relatively small orchestra of eighteen, it was an uncomfortably accurate portrayal of sleep’s refusal to take hold, with a high pitched glockenspiel tone becoming particularly tiresome. Sitting in the background, its tone made an uncomfortable backdrop for the increasingly fractious instrumental activity in front, which finally subsided into a fitful slumber, the sort where it is already too late in the night to be rescued. The piece began with promising tonal material, but in a manner akin to insomnia this was rendered much less appealing by the end.
Thankfully Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony was on hand to pierce the darkness with music of unrestrained joy. The opening surge is one of the happiest in all classical music, and like the river on which it is based it takes everything with it downstream. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra were superb, the lofty horns enhancing the open-air sound while the woodwind worked together in beautifully shaded colours, as did the strings with more vibrato this time.
If anything the second movement Ländler was even better, flowing forward with purpose and charm, while the Intermezzo following also had a softer heart. The mood became solemn for Schumann’s powerful evocation of Cologne Cathedral in the fourth movement, the symphony turning inwards with self-doubt and contemplation, but from this the finale emerged with resolve and conviction.
A strong Prom, then, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra giving us something old (Brahms and Schumann), something new (Larcher), something borrowed in the Berg and something blue in the mood that ran throughout. Thankfully the shade of this particular blue changed from deep and dark at the outset to a bright and breezy azure by the end.
Stay tuned for the next in Arcana’s Ask The Audience series, where Sam Hogwood will give her verdict on the Scottish Chamber Orchestra Prom. Coming shortly!