Thomas Larcher: Madhares, ECM 2010

At the beginning of Thomas Larcher’s 2007 piano concerto “Böse Zellen,” or “Malignant Cells” – the first work on an ECM disk devoted to the forty-six-year-old Austrian composer – the voice of the piano is stifled. Larcher asks for the instrument to be altered in the style of John Cage, with rubber wedges inserted between the lower strings and gaffer tape applied to the upper register. The timbres that result from these operations lack the twinkling exoticism of Cage’s prepared-piano music: the piano makes a sullen, thudding sound, as if trapped behind Plexiglas. It sounds more like a machine, not less. At the beginning, the piano presents stark chords in and around E minor, and a steel ball is rolled on the strings to produce a metallic glissando, like that of a slide guitar. Over four movements, the music lurches between hectic orchestral noises and plaintive tonal harmonies, until, in a climactic passage, the wedges are removed, the tape is ripped off the strings, and the piano is allowed to sing out fully. The ending is hauntingly spare, with major and minor chords in alternation.
Larcher is an unpredictable, freethinking composer, who has set aside the modernist strictures that have long governed Central European music. He plunges into tonal spheres without irony or theoretical circumspection. In the viola concerto “Still,” which also appears on the ECM disk, the musical language occasionally verges on the otherworldly simplicity of Arvo Pärt, who is a mainstay of the label. “Madhares,” for string quartet, journeys from harsh, scratchy textures to a whispery C-major sweetness. The downside of this extreme stylistic versatility is a haphazard sense of structure. “Still” is the weakest piece on the compilation, arresting gestures in search of a narrative; “Madhares,” too, has a fitful feel. But “Böse Zellen” is riveting from start to finish – a sweat-inducing drama in instrumental form. All the works receive immaculate, strongly felt performances, from the pianist Till Fellner, the violist Kim Kashkashian, the Diotima Quartet, and the Munich Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Dennis Russell Davies.

Alex Ross: Uncanny Voices. New CDs of Chopin, Thomas Larcher, and Bach, The New Yorker, August 2010

The music is dislocated, muffled, struggling to form itself, with traces of tonal gestures buried deep within. It’s as if the composer, after a nuclear holocaust, were trying to remember what classical music had once been. This is the sound picture first presented by Böse Zellen (“Malign Cells”, though best translated as “Free Radicals”), the opening work on this outstanding CD of compositions by Thomas Larcher.
He is Austrian, 46 years old and one of the few current composers whose works sound like no one else’s. Locked away in the conservative Tyrol, he knew little contemporary music at first, but grew into a notable pianist of 20th -century repertoire. From the late 1980s his composition grew in importance. So far British exposure has been sporadic, but on May 20 his cello sonata will be performed in London by Natalie Clein at LSO St Luke’s. Next year he’ll be heard at the Barbican, the Proms, and Wigmore Hall. Quite right, too: his extraordinary, arresting, communicative music is one of this century’s wonders.
The CD’s title is borrowed from a recent work for string quartet (Madhares), played with radiant commitment by the Quatuor Diotima. Some movements screech or chunter on, obsessive, motoric; others linger in Schubert’s shadow or trace the shape of a song from Nepal. It’s a work of haunting landscapes and dreams, stylistically disparate but fused by the composer’s astonishing ear and quizzical attitude to traditional forms.
Classical music’s past looms larger still in Böse Zellen, a concerto of sorts for piano and orchestra, alternately teasing and disturbing. Till Fellner has recently been heard on CD glittering in Beethoven and Bach: here the pianist clunks softly on a piano garlanded with muffled strings and a water turbine’s steel ball. Still, for viola (Kim Kashkashian) and chamber orchestra, plays its own imaginative games with music’s history. Both pieces feature the Munich Chamber Orchestra and the conductor Dennis Russell Davies, ideal for adventurous repertoire.
If you still need convincing, consider Larcher’s description of his ideal listener: someone who can recognise the structures and codes of European classical traditions, but can also “enter into a sound world in a relatively naive manner”. Someone “who in turn is looking for a dynamic relationship between the intellect and the emotions”. Someone like you?

Geoff Brown: Thomas Larcher: Madhares. Some movements screech or chunter on; others linger in Schubert’s shadow or trace the shape of a song from Nepal, The Times, May 7 2010

Though he first made his name as a top-flight pianist, Thomas Larcher (born 1963) now devotes most of his time to composition, as part of an outstanding generation of Austrian composers that also includes Olga Neuwirth, Beat Furrer, Georg Friedrich Haas and Johannes Maria Staud. Larcher’s music, though, is distinctly different from that of any of his near contemporaries. As these three works from the last decade show, Larcher ranges very widely in his influences, and most often well away from the mainstream of European music in the last 30 years. Böse Zellen, with its allusions to the musical past, aleatoric passages juxtaposed with tonal sequences and the persistent alienating effect of prepared-piano sounds suggests George Crumb more than say, Lachenmann, just as the romantic gestures and moments of frenzied activity of the viola work Still recall Schnittke and Kancheli rather than anyone closer to home. Madhares is different again, yet far more distinctive in its unlikely blend of styles.

Andrew Clements: Larcher: Böse Zellen; Still; Madhares, The Guardian, May 6 2010

Austrian composer Thomas Larcher (born 1963), at once experimental and responsive to tradition, isn‘t as well-known as he should be. This world premiere recording of his String Quartet No 3 (Madhares), minutely detailed in its multiplying patterns and crazily interweaving motifs, shows him at his best. Two other contrasting works (Böse Zellen, Still) feature pianist Fellner and viola player Kashkashian. All told, a bracing, exhilarating way to discover Larcher.

Fiona Maddocks: Thomas Larcher: Madhares, The Observer, May 16 2010