28 October 2015: Thomas Larcher's Violin Concerto

On Wednesday 28 October 2015, the London Philharmonic Orchestra will be joined by violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja in a performance of Thomas Larcher’s Violin Concerto. In this exclusive article, Philip Borg-Wheller unravels the composer’s career so far, and delves into the musical shaping of Larcher’s Concerto.

Born in Innsbruck, Thomas Larcher studied the piano in Vienna with Heinz Medjimorec and Elisabeth Leonskaya, composition with Erich Urbanner. During this period he became known especially for his piano recitals including contemporary works. In 1994 Larcher established the Klangspuren Festival in the Tyrol as a platform for contemporary music and ten years later he founded the Festival of Swarovski Crystal Worlds 'Music in the Giant' in Wattens. Larcher has been chosen as composer-in-residence of the Mozarteum Orchestra in Salzburg, the Konzerthaus in Vienna, the Wigmore Hall and various festivals.

From his early piano works Larcher moved on to a series of string quartets, Still – a viola concerto from 2002 – and Böse Zellen for piano with chamber orchestra (2006). Among his major orchestral works are Red and Green (premiered in 2011), and a Double Concerto (premiered by Viktoria Mullova and Matthew Barley the same year). His more recent or current projects are all connected with prestigious artists – works for Mark Padmore and Matthias Goerne, a piece for the Belcea Quartet's 20th anniversary, and a concerto for orchestra for the Vienna Philharmonic.

Larcher's Violin Concerto of 2008/9, jointly commissioned by RSO Vienna, ZaterdagMatinee Amsterdam and the German Radio Philharmonic Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern, was composed for Isabelle Faust, who gave the premiere in Vienna's Musikverein on 26th March 2009 with the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra under Bertrand de Billy. The orchestration includes harp, piano, celesta, accordion, six kalimbas (related to the mbira, or African thumb-piano), cowbells, flexatone, watergong, vibraphone, crotales,whip, ratchet, marimba and frying pan. However, there are merely pairs of horns and trumpets and only one trombone, much of the work being notable for its economical and sensitive sound-world. Larcher has explained that the two movements originate from quite different concepts – the first influenced by Romanian folk-music (through Bartók, Ligeti, etc.) and its 'archaic energy', while another preoccupation is the potential of an orchestra (modest-sized, to maximise 'rhythmic mobility') to realise this rhythmic energy. The serene opening is initially based on the notes of an E minor arpeggio but soon descending scales assume a more important role within the cumulative texture. A sudden change of tempo brings a longer passage of intense activity and eventually a plateau is reached, the soloist sustaining high C's against gently pulsing cow-bells and string glissandi. A renewal of the frenetic activity culminates in an extended climax with hammered repeated notes, but this recedes into a magical coda in which the solo violin, accompanied by the haunting sound of the accordion, reflects on the original arpeggios.

The composer describes the second movement as a 'circle-of-fifths passacaglia', the open C of the cello being the starting-point for the ascending chain of fifths. In the middle of this movement we arrive at 'catastrophic, orgiastic midnight' (Larcher's words). This midnight crisis provokes a complete breakdown in the composer's process of working his way up from the original cello C, beginning the fifths sequence a semitone higher each time and intending to arrive at C an octave above. The 'catastrophic' moment evokes – in Larcher's words – 'a hole being torn in the earth's crust, into which everything disappears'. A few bars later the piano's twelve repetitions of a bare fifth (A+E) are a passing reference to the mid-point of the palindromic second movement from Berg's Chamber Concerto, in which the piano similarly evokes the tolling of midnight. In this aftermath Larcher's original concept is reduced to 'a mere shadow', the many instrumental parts become independent, unsynchronised, and only threads remain.

Philip Borg-Wheeler

Don't miss the performance of Larcher's Violin Concerto on Wednesday 28 October 2015.