On Saturday 22 May, the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, principal conductor Karina Canellakis and pianist Kirill Gerstein will premiere the new Piano Concerto by Austrian composer Thomas Larcher in NTRZaterdagMatinee. – Unfortunately still no audience is allowed in Main Hall The Concertgebouw, but the concert will be broadcast live on NPO Radio 4. I wrote the programme notes and Larcher was kind enough to answer some questions.
Thomas Larcher (1963) has been featured in NTRZaterdagMatinee many times, both as a pianist and as a composer. He composed several (co-)commissioned works for the series. In 2017, his Second Symphony “Kenotaph” had its Dutch premiere in this radio series. The scheduled first performance of the Third Symphony last year was postponed because of corona. Larcher was composer in residence of The Concertgebouw then (2019-2020), and as such the predecessor of Samuel Adams, whose piece Movements (for us and them) opens the concert.
Larcher’s Piano Concerto again is a co-commission from NTRZaterdagMatinee. The composer often relates to music history, and this goes for the new piece as well: ‘Each of my pieces is an archaeological excavation from my own past’, he says. ‘Especially now perhaps, since it involves the piano, “my” instrument. The Piano Concerto is mostly inspired by pieces I wrote in the early 1990s, when I resisted composing for piano. There’s a lot of aggression and conflict in it.
This seems paradoxical, because in Larcher’s early compositions the piano plays a prominent role. However, he does sometimes ask the pianist to forcefully pound away on its keyboard, as in Naunz (1989). Moreover, he often works with a ‘prepared piano’, not always treating the instrument with excessive care. In Noodivihik for piano solo (1992), for example, he manipulates a vibrating bass string with a pair of rusty nail scissors. In Mumien for cello and piano (2001) he places an array of erasers between the strings and even covers some with duct tape.
In the Piano Concerto, the instrument is mainly played in a ‘normal’ way. Apart from a few moments when the soloist hits the strings with the flat of his hand, scrapes them with his fingernails, employs an eraser or dampens them with a piece of denim. At times the dynamics change per note from fortissimo to piano.
The unorthodox orchestral line-up with accordion, two saxophones and cimbalom, is striking. However this is no coincidence, as Larcher has a name to lose in terms of using unusual sound colours. ‘The traditional orchestra is in dire need of change’, he explains. ‘It must open up for instruments other than the usual ones, otherwise it will end up as a wonderfully embalmed mummy. The saxophones give the woodwinds more transparency, and their colour provides clear contours.’
Thomas Larcher: “The orchestra must open up for instruments other than the usual ones, otherwise it will end up as a wonderfully embalmed mummy.”Tweet
Percussion also has a prominent role, with four musicians playing such unconventional instruments as tambourin de Provence (a narrow, portable drum) and steel drums. ‘The percussion acts as a kind of clock that sets the structure. It simultaneously serves as a timer, metronome, heart rate monitor, prompter, and blood pressure monitor.’
‘At other times the emphasis lies more on the melodic progression, for percussion may no less be a melody instrument than the piano.’ Often the soloist teams up with percussion, accordion, cimbalom and celesta. Yet this does not mean they are acting as a kind of concertino or shadow ensemble: ‘Rather, these instruments constitute the spine and the nerve tracts enclosed within.’
CONSTRUCTION AND EXPRESSION
The Piano Concerto is dedicated to Larcher’s former composition teacher Erich Urbanner: ‘Both as a teacher and as a composer, he has meant a lot to me. A very outspoken, strong-willed and incorruptible personality, he taught with great passion. But he was also ruthless in his towering musical demands. For one, you had to master counterpoint to the hilt.’
Larcher greatly admires Urbanner’s own compositions. ‘I have known them since I was twelve. I am still deeply impressed by his Cello Concerto from 1981, which I heard in a performance by Heinrich Schiff. It opened up new worlds for me. For the first time I experienced a synthesis between construction and profound expression. That has left a big mark on my own music.’
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