Tirolian composer Thomas Larcher has always struck me as a musician in the mold of that great Austrian stylistic dabbler, Ernst Krenek. A great deal of the twentieth-century finds itself reflected in Krenek, who rode the wave of numerous landmark ‘-isms’, a master of all (and his twelve-tone opera Karl V, the first full-length instance of operatic serialism, is a masterpiece) and exemplar of none. It wasn’t so long after his experiments with electronic music, contemporary with Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge, that he sank into musical obscurity, having attempted in his little-known later works some enforced union of the various styles he had served. Unlike Krenek, Larcher enjoys the postmodern inalienable right to wander freely among musical traditions – and yet, in the order he imparts to his eclecticism, he picks up, in a sense, where Krenek left off.

Mark Padmore © Marco Borggreve
Mark Padmore
© Marco Borggreve

Larcher’s work is more serially organized than he lets on, with collections of pitches forming surface structures in this Padmore cycle. In the piano, they move the songs forwards; in the voice, gaping intervals lend an oratorical aspect to proceedings. On top of this Larcher adds a panoply of acoustic effects (knocking, rubbing, scraping and the like) drawn directly from the musique concrète instrumentale of Helmut Lachenmann. At the fundamental level however stands Larcher’s love of triads, which foreground nearly all of his pieces, sometimes structurally, other times with a focus on their timbral properties. Among Larcher’s many classical influences, Schubert is recalled here, particularly ‘Das Wandern’, the song from Die schöne Müllerin about the joys of roaming – a pleasure belied by its tonic fixation, which communicates a sense of rootedness. That tension between movement and stasis is also present in Larcher’s writing: Stravinskian rhythmic drive sits alongside inert sound sustained beyond the natural decay of the piano using a battery-powered device, named the e-bow, which produces a steady harmonium-like tone when placed on a string. The reluctance to let go of a sound crosses over into the vocal part, which features high notes held for serenely long durations.

It is perhaps just as well, then, that Larcher is in the habit of writing with a specific soloist in mind (he has composed another song cycle for Matthias Goerne, a violin concerto for Isabelle Faust and a double concerto for Viktoria Mullova and Matthew Barley). And those interval leaps and pianissimo top As fit Mark Padmore’s voice like a glove, erasing its register breaks and showcasing its purity of sound and flexibility. But Larcher doesn’t shirk from pushing the instrument and taking risks, particularly when there is a powerful image to be evoked. The setting of texts, written by Hans Aschenwald and Alois Hotschnig, can be striking here: a two-line poem about the seasonal transfer of livestock carries a twist we are provoked into reading as banal, or glib (‘When life begins in early summer, people die in the valley’). Larcher however stretches out ‘menschen sterben im tal’, adding a disquieting note which Padmore ratchets up all the way to full-blown menace. The suggestion that all is not right with the Alpine world, also thematized in Krenek’s 1920 song cycle Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen, came across just as robustly in ‘Hunger nach eine Heimat die keine mehr ist’, a text about nonconformity and being written out of society.

Mark Padmore didn’t have the composer on his side in Henze’s Sechs Gesänge aus dem Arabischen, but nevertheless gave this vocally draining cycle another remarkable performance. Henze set huge amounts of text, most of which he wrote himself, though narrative and figurative aspects separate out fairly clearly in the music, with an array of colouristic effects in the piano part to add to the dramatic delivery required of the singer. Pianist Andrew West was unflagging here, and did as formidable and sensitive a job as he had done in the Larcher. Mark Padmore’s treatment of the text was full of sharp observations, with the German read in numerous ways I didn’t anticipate from following the programme booklet. A difficult solo epilogue at the end of the fifth song was delivered with tremendous vocal power, and the final song was left to die away in a way which, again, brought Die schöne Müllerin to mind, this time the gentle rocking of ‘Des Baches Wiegenlied’. A memorable evening of fine contemporary song and transporting artistry.