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Dip Your Ears: No. 266 (Thomas Larcher’s Great Symphony)

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T.Larcher, Sy.2 "Kenotaph",
Die Nacht der Verlorenen
H.Lintu / FinnishRSO
Ondine 1393

Thomas Larcher’s Great Symphony

The Rebirth Of Contemporary Classical Music?

When Thomas Larcher’s Second Symphony *Kenotaph* was premiered at Vienna’s venerable Musikverein, almost six years ago, it felt like contemporary music was back on track, even in continental Europe. It might be naïve to assume that it’ll ever be more than a cultural niche again, but there are heartening signs that modern classical music has shaken off the ideological shackles that had kept it for so long in its specialist echo chambers, performed before self-selecting crowds celebrating their own importance… and with the taxpayers, not the attendees, paying for most of the tickets. Moreover, the habitually conservative audiences are beginning to respond to it. The “modern” piece of the dreaded education concert sandwich is not as feared anymore; sometimes it even takes center stage, and recordings on non-specialist labels are issued. Dieter Ammann’s Piano Concerto *Gran Toccata* is one example, *Kenotaph*, which is now out on Ondine with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra performing live under Hannu Lintu, is another. (A planned release of the Vienna Philharmonic performance on DG never happened.)

The effect of this music is not quite the same on record as in the concert hall, where all the crackle and cackle explodes vividly across a stage sprawling with musicians. But we listen to Mahler on record, about whose music the same could be said, so the complaint seems churlish and the music is too interesting to ignore. *Kenotaph* opens a bit like Ravel’s Piano Concerto, with a whack of the clapper (sounding more like a timpani thud here) that spurs the orchestra into metallic spurts of activity. Repeated mini-climaxes take turns with lacunae of Zbigniew Preisner-like string solemnity. The rhythms are catchy, the noises make sense, the tones have perceivable sequences, the violence of it keeps you awake, and the tenderness on tenterhooks.

After the Allegro-frenzy, the lyrical Adagio consoles with swaths cut perhaps from Mahler by way of Schnittke. There’s a fragile beauty in this, and a melodic phrase reminiscent of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony appears and re-appears throughout. Somewhere within the strings hides an accordion and adds its distinct color – and then the movement melts away as if taking leave. It hasn’t gone, however, and violently reminds of its continued presence only to fall back into its own, like an aborted soufflé, with the solo violin ushering the movement out with said Mahleresque phrase.

In the third movement, a “Scherzo; Molto allegro” with overtones of Prokofiev and Tim Burton films, the percussion group gets to try out every instrument they found in the storage rooms of the Finnish Broadcasting studios. A series of increasingly louder, marching chords – played by the foot-soldier-violins and a battery of percussion, deliciously primitive – ratchet up the tension before the clarinets sweetly pretend that nothing of that sort of thing had ever happened. Mischievous listeners might hear it as an allegory of Austrian history. Actually it’s an allusion to Karlheinz Stockhausen’s *Klavierstück No.9* with its 140 repeated chords, here equaled or just beaten.

The fourth movement marshals all the martial forces in contrasting blocks. The recipe still works, even 30, 35 minutes into the symphony, making *Kenotaph* a superbly entertaining symphonic tour de force… challenging and consoling, spikey and beautiful, and with that “Mahler-9” motif (if that’s what it is) coming back for a conciliatory ending. A kenotaph (or cenotaph) is an empty, symbolical tomb and the work was inspired by “the crisis of men, women, and children fleeing the clutches of war and mayhem.” In 2016 that was written with an eye towards the Middle East. So far, 2022 is seeing to it that the topic isn’t becoming any less pertinent.

*Die Nacht der Verlorenen*, a five-partite song cycle for baritone and orchestra, risks becoming an afterthought after *Kenotaph*, although it’s a substantial, half-hour work that shares much of the soundscape with the 8-year younger symphony. That might be good enough for enjoyment, but where Larcher really shines, is in his treatment of the human voice, which is perhaps the instrument that had suffered the most and for the longest, under a certain pervasive type of modernism… to the point where so much contemporary vocal music all sounded the gosh-darn same. But what Larcher writes makes sense to the ear, from Sprechgesang to lyrical, melodic lines. Nascent baritone star Andrè Schuen sings the Ingeborg Bachmann poems in neo-Diskauesque manner, slightly aloof, cerebrally, beautifully, and smooth like the oily crema on a great espresso. My only question mark: was the persistent violin-induced tinnitus-whistle in “Memorial” really necessary?


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