In 2020, the world premiere of Thomas Larcher‘s Third Symphony fell through due to corona. The subtitle A Line Above the Sky refers to British mountaineer Tom Ballard, who fatally crashed in 2019. It wasn’t until February 2021 that the Symphony actually sounded for the first time, in Brno; on 25 September the belated Dutch premiere will be presented by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of chief conductor Karina Canellakis as part of the radio series NTRZaterdagMatinee.
Thomas Larcher, born in 1963 in Innsbruck, is considered one of the most important composers of his generation. He is also a welcome guest in the Netherlands. He was the resident composer of the Concertgebouw in 2019-20 and the NTRZaterdagMatinee has staged many (world) premieres. Just this past May, the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, pianist Kirill Gerstein and principal conductor Karina Canellakis reaped great acclaim for the (also postponed) premiere of his Piano Concerto.
‘Pianist Kirill Gerstein and the orchestra draw you into an enchanting landscape’, wrote the Volkskrant – and gave five stars. ‘What follows is an exuberant finale on jazzy hopscotch rhythms’, the NRC noted. ‘Afterwards, you’ll want to hear Larcher’s Piano Concerto again immediately.’ I’d be surprised if his Third Symphony doesn’t lead to jubilant reviews again. The recording of its Austrian premiere in August, once more illustrates his apt sense of form and colourful way of orchestrating.
Thomas Larcher is also valued in his homeland. In 2019 he received the Grosser Österreichischer Staatspreis and last June he received the Tiroler Landespreis für Kunst. This highest art award of the Austrian state of Tyrol is not only a tribute to the musical significance of the composer and pianist, but also a thank you for his relentless commitment to the culture of his native region. In 1994 he founded the Klangspuren festival, focused on new music, followed ten years later by the interpreter’s festival Musik im Riesen; both attract international luminaries.
The mountainous landscape of Austria is a constant source of inspiration for Larcher. An avid mountaineer and skier himself, he says he finds relief and solace in its rugged nature. No wonder he is fascinated by British alpinist Tom Ballard (1988-2019). Ballard established several imaginative climbing routes, including the Seven Pillars of Wisdom on the Eiger in Switzerland. He was also the first mountaineer to solo climb all six major alpine north faces in one winter season.
In 2015, Ballard gained world fame when he created the D15 route in the Dolomites, A Line Above the Sky. He designed this track using the dry-tooling method: the climber only has crampons on his shoes and an ice axe in each hand. Back then the route was the most difficult one in the world, though it is only some 45 metres long: it starts out vertically but very soon becomes almost entirely horizontal, so that the mountaineer quasi climbs ‘under a ceiling’.
In his own programme notes, Larcher expresses his admiration for Ballard: ‘He was one of the most fascinating and best alpinists of his generation, and was particularly strong in winter climbing.’ The composer is convinced that the fact Ballard named his infamous dry-tooling route A Line Above the Sky testifies of his desire to ‘live in the light’.
As an amateur climber, Larcher recognizes the strong connection Ballard felt with the mountains, ‘those silent giants that have been watching us for a long time’. He compares the Brit’s passion for mountaineering to his own devotion to music.
Larcher, however, has less understanding for Ballard’s deliberation to put his life on the line, which eventually proved fatal to him. During an expedition to Nanga Parbat, Pakistan in February 2019, Ballard disappeared from the radar; not long after, they found his disembodied body. Larcher: ‘That someone should persist in his attempts to climb the Nanga Parbat even in very poor weather conditions is beyond me.’
For the composer, this inevitably leads to metaphysical questions such as, ‘What is life’; ‘How much is your life worth to you’, and ‘What does your life mean to others?’ With these thoughts in mind, he composed his Third Symphony in 2019. The thirty-minute piece has two, untitled movements. The first is ‘a testimony to the intensity of life’, the second a ‘Trauermusik’ (mourning music)..
FROM COOKIE TIN TO THUNDER PLATE
As in earlier orchestral works, Larcher has expanded the regular orchestral lineup. Thus, in addition to their own instruments, the wind players play slide whistles, vibraslaps and water phones. The four percussionists not only operate an array of tuned and un-tuned percussion, but also a cookie tin, a milk pan, paper, an oil drum and other unlikely musical instruments.
Wind machine and thunderplate are generously employed and a starring role is given to cimbalom, accordion, celesta, harp and piano. – Some of the piano strings are fitted with E-bows or dampened with erasers, almost a matter of course in Larcher’s sound universe.
With this orchestral apparatus, Larcher manages to evoke both the expansive vistas and the implicit menace of the mountains. In claustrophobically dense sound fabrics, ascending and descending motifs battle for precedence. Icy highs find a counterpoint in abyssal lows; frivolous swirls are intersected with ominous thunderclaps; sudden silences make you hold your breath. The pace is slow, the orchestral sound luscious and expansive; Mahler is never far away.
The soundscape constantly shifts between intoxicating stillness, arcadian lyricism, restrained tension and deafening roaring, just as in the mountains new landscapes and dangers lurk behind every corner. Striking are the many passages in which a soloist ‘climbs’ melodically up or down, while the cimbalom builds a spiky staircase with measured strokes. Toward the end, dissonant cries from the brass, solid drumbeats, violent tremoloes in the strings, a fierce accordion, and roaring tubular bells create an anxious climax.
The Symphony ends with a shrouded heartbeat in the piano, which is smothered in a charged silence, the strings softly dying away. – Suspended in mid-air hangs the almost rhetorical question: was it all worth it?