Thomas Larcher (born 1963)

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Berliner Philharmonie, Herbert-von-Karajan-Straße, Berlin

Just returned from a tour with chief conductor Kirill Petrenko, the Berlin Philharmonic now welcomes guest maestros for its December concerts – Semyon Bychkov this week, Andris Nelsons next, and then Zubin Mehta.

Bychkov’s conducting of Mahler Four found the Symphony’s extremes – of speeds, moods and dynamics. The first movement, airily sounded, suavely played, was initially agile and cossetted (Romantic fiction rather than Classical linkage), everything in the garden lovely, but there’s a Grimm background and the nightmarish aspects weren’t held back, snarls in the undergrowth before shadows attracted daylight glare, upheaval, the full gremlin now in view. For the second movement, concertmaster Noah Bendix-Balgley turned to his up-tuned violin for something devilish, Bychkov’s nippy tempo adding to the macabre, while being alive to contrasts, whether spiky, elegant or duskily seductive. Bychkov now baton-less, the slow movement was beautifully done, fluid and intense, scenery-viewing and chased-by-a-bull acceleration, inward musing and spectacular views (the big sky-opening climax was majestic, its envoi heartfelt) all part of the woodland trek. I missed Chen Reiss’s entrance, but there she was in front of the orchestra for the Finale’s child’s view of Heaven, her soprano vocally strong but necessarily light-emitting. The close was thoughtful and sensitively faded, harp gently strumming.

The concert’s first half was devoted to Austrian Thomas Larcher’s new thirty-five-minute Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (premiered in May and due in the UK on February 11, https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/ejhcd4), written for Kirill Gerstein, and co-commissioned by the Berliner Philharmoniker Foundation, Česká filharmonie, Wiener Konzerthaus, Nederlandse Publieke Omroep, BBC Radio 3, Danish National Symphony Orchestra and Bergen Filharmoniske Orkester. It proved to be intriguing in terms of timbre and incident – the orchestra is large, including accordion, celesta, cimbalom, harp and plentiful percussion – but although atmosphere and suspense are notably present, the ear consistently engaged, the orchestra in all departments kept busy, there is something of a shortage of substance. No doubt the writing for the piano, Larcher’s own instrument, is thoroughly idiomatic, and Gerstein was tremendously virtuosic, playing the piano’s keys and its insides, but beyond the imaginative colours it all seemed rather empty. Of the three movements, the first is volatile, the second dark and brooding, spooky – ideal for a horror-film soundtrack – and the short Finale gets off to an attractive jazzy start before lapsing to dreary rumination, and never finds itself again, disappearing to nothingness for (it seems) no particular reason save for getting lost, but maybe representing “In the midst of Life we are in Death”? Musically and structurally weak as an ending, not sure if Larcher does design beyond sound, the Concerto is disappointing overall, and I don’t think a second performance would make any difference … and there are quite a few scheduled.

I was hoping Gerstein would add as an extra the Bach/Busoni piece he played at this year’s Proms, http://www.colinscolumn.com/bbc-proms-2021-bbc-symphony-orchestra-semyon-bychkov-conducts-coriolan-overture-scottish-symphony-kirill-gerstein-plays-robert-schumanns-piano-concerto/, but he offered nothing further.