The world premiere of Thomas Larcher's new Piano Concerto will celebrate the Austrian composer's close relationship to the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and NTR Saturday Matinee series which since 2008 have presented two world and four Dutch premieres, with his Third Symphony scheduled to make its world premiere on 25th September.

Thomas Larcher
© Richard Haughton

NTR artistic director Kees Vlaardingerbroek told me that Larcher's music "speaks to our audience in a strongly personal and modern voice that incorporates the best aspects of the romantic-expressionistic tradition. His music is incredibly adventurous and colourful, and unparalleled in its range of expression."

When the Prague premiere was cancelled due to Covid, the NRPO was happy to step in, being one of the seven commissioning orchestras, alongside the Czech Philharmonic, Wiener Konzerthaus, BBC Radio 3, Danish National Symphony Orchestra, Berliner Philharmoniker and Bergen Philharmonic.

With his new Piano Concerto, Larcher was happy to be returning to his roots as one of his generation's most probing pianists, as can be heard on his recordings for ECM New Series and other prestigious labels. The commission reunited Larcher with Bychkov, who had conducted the world premiere of his Symphony no.2 “Kenotaph” in 2016 with the Vienna Philharmonic, and three years later the US premiere with the New York Philharmonic in David Geffen Hall.

While his brother runs WarnerMedia's HBO Max in glamorous Hollywood, Larcher still lives in his home town of Innsbruck, where he finds inspiration in the beauty and solitude of nature. I spoke to him three weeks after the new concerto was finished.

“I wrote a very huge first movement,” he said and admitted, “I didn't know exactly how long it would go because it was modelled after a piece I had written for Paul Lewis, with several extensions. It came out to something like 18 minutes. Just the first movement.” After deciding that a two-movement piece would be better, Larcher wrote a slow movement of around eight minutes. But in the end he still felt the need for and wrote “a sarcastic little third movement.”

A lot of the inspiration for the new concerto came from an unexpected source: Leonard Cohen's last album, Thanks for the Dance, arranged by the Canadian troubadour's son for mostly acoustic instruments. “If you listen to it as a musician, you hear that everything is right. It's just Cohen's voice recorded when he had terminal cancer. He's not singing but speaking rhythmically, and the arrangements are so spare so you can continually discover many things as you listen to it again and again. I also went back to Stravinsky and his search for clarity as he journeyed from Firebird and Sacre to his abstract, late 12-tone pieces. For me clarity has a fascination, perhaps because I just want to write music that may seem easy but which is the result of thorough thinking about music.”

Although Larcher now has a strong individual sound profile, after having played all the piano repertoire from Brahms to Schoenberg and back – as well as commissioning and working with a range of new composers from Heinz Holliger to Olga Neuwirth and Isabel Mundry – there was a time, he said, when he felt concerned for his own identity.

Whenever he tried to compose a note he thought, “It's from the second Boulez Sonata, or from Ligeti, or Gershwin.” And so at some point he began preparing the piano with erasers, sticking them in between the strings, because he wanted to have “some different rhythmical layers, mainly in the bass.”

Larcher's new approach to the piano had culminated in Böse Zellen, which took the instrumentation of Mozart's Piano Concerto in E-flat as the starting point for an orchestra that would expand to require five percussionists. “I felt I had made my mark in the piano concerto genre with Böse Zellen and wouldn't touch it again,” Larcher told me, “but then Semyon and Kirill asked me to write them a concerto and I began to think about it. While I was thinking, I wrote several song cycles and some chamber music where I could return to a normal piano. I also wrote an unprepared piano piece for Paul Lewis and subsequently used some of the material and leftovers as the starting point for this new concerto.”

Kirill Gerstein
© Marco Borggreve

When I asked him to hum a few bars, Larcher laughed and said, “This new concerto is for an even stranger orchestration than Böse Zellen. It's got reduced strings, doubled winds with two saxophones, one trumpet, two horns, one trombone, a tuba, a cimbalom, accordion, harp, celeste, and four percussionists. The orchestra we are used to,” he explained, “is simply such an antique thing. It has not developed for a hundred years and everyone complains about extra musicians, extra money, small stages and all that. I think we have to broaden this definition of an orchestra. And also, I have a big appetite for percussion.”

Larcher liked using the accordion because “apart from the strings, it's the only instrument you can play softly in the upper regions. And the cimbalom sounds like maybe a bad clavichord, a very special colour that helps me emphasise different layers of the music.”

Working on the music in the isolation the pandemic imposed on travel has been surreal, even among close friends and skilled musical collaborators. Larcher said it “was good in the end” because he could finish the work “in peace and quiet. I was particularly searching for clarity because I wanted the piece to be lucid and easily listenable, and at the same time interesting in a rhythmical way. It's not so much about sound painting with big orchestral masses.”

When Gerstein strikes the first notes at the world premiere, he will be playing it straight, except for some “very tiny things he can use to mute the strings at the very beginning which will give his sound a darker colour. But that's minor. All the other things are just normal.”

Larcher's preferred “very tiny things” are the hundreds of little Pilot eraser heads sitting atop the mechanical pencils which, loaded with 0.5mm lead, Larcher uses for composing every day. He explained how at some point he had started to make little balls out of the used erasers and now, he said, he has “tons. Perhaps I'm not a composer,” he added, “but rather a minimalist sculptor making bowls full of erasers.” Larcher also constructs his own music paper, which can be folded out like a road map to accommodate the fantastic imagination of his orchestrations, including endless ranks of divisi strings and multiple percussionists.

In closing, Larcher told me that there's has been “a musical brain drain from the Tirol. The solo flautist of the Vienna Philharmonic, the tuba player of the Vienna Symphony, many players in the Munich orchestras, and some fine composers. I'm the only one who's stayed. Because I'm a romantic, because I love to climb the mountains and hear the silence.”

This article was sponsored by the NTR ZaterdagMatinee