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Thomas Larcher in Conversation

Would you say this recording marks a particular stage in your career as a composer?
Well, in a sense every new release is a record of the latest stages you have passed through. While the first two albums I made with ECM, Naunz (2000) and Ixxu (2006), presented works for smaller ensembles, in Madhares the focus has shifted towards music for solo instruments and orchestra. Still, written in 2002, could be regarded as the point of departure; Böse Zellen, written in 2006-07, marks a later stage in my pieces for larger forces – on the path towards the orchestral music I'm working on now, or that is already finished but hasn't yet been premiered. And the quartet Madhares is my most recent foray into the world of chamber music.

The title Böse Zellen is taken from a movie, Still has associations with the idea of film stills, and the title of the quartet Madhares also seems to tap into the realms of optical impressions. How important are these visual connotations in your work?
I can well imagine that my music evokes a range of images in the listener's imagination, but for me personally I find the catalyst for my work in the ideas and realms of my own mind rather than sensory impressions. This catalyst is important to me, like an impulse or an electric charge, for what it does, rather than for its particular characteristics. So the title Madhares has less to do with the geographical region in the west of Crete than with a utopian place, somewhere far away from where I am – possibly completely beyond reach.

These new pieces clearly connect with genres such as the solo concerto or the string quartet that have such a long tradition in music history. To what extent are these traditions a source of that kind of an electric charge?
For me, as a pianist, the concerto is very familiar territory, which naturally also prompts me to question it, above all by re-evaluating the primacy of the soloist. In both of the concertante works, in Böse Zellen and in Still, the orchestra is very active, more than just an accompaniment, so powerful that it often swamps the soloist.

Does the composer identify with the soloist? After all, you are also a pianist . . .
Some people have described Böse Zellen as an "angry piece", which maybe means that it reveals a layer of my personality that is not otherwise apparent in my day to day life. But that kind of obsession, manic activity, where "the wheels in your mind just keep on constantly spinning", when you can't stop your mind racing – I do know all of that very well. Yet, that's not to say that the solo part should be equated with me as a person . . .

How would you describe your relationship to the instruments you have used here? – The "quiet" (silent?) viola, the prepared (masked) piano, not to mention that most noble of chamber music ensembles, the string quartet!
Yes, for me the viola does emerge from silence, but there is also a certain roughness to its sound, an unprettified side, in deliberate contrast to all that elegiac expression that is so often associated with this particular instrument. As for the piano, that's naturally a rather complex matter. On one hand there's the escape from the brilliant to the masked piano sound, which is also very much about extending its coloristic spectrum. That's why it was important to me to prepare it even more than usual by using a large ball and presenting the moment of "de-preparation" as a decisive juncture in Böse Zellen. And I've always been very interested in the percussive quality of the piano. On the other hand, for me the string quartet is and always has been the most exciting configuration of instruments, with the most associations, partly because it is so pure, partly because it has so unbelievably many different facets, even orchestral. The potential for sounds to merge seamlessly into each other only to become completely distinct voices again that you get in a quartet – that has to be unique. You just don't get that kind of inwardness or that kind of tonal blend from a piano.

And could you perhaps tell us a little about working with Dennis Russell Davies?
Dennis has been both a catalyst and a great source of encouragement to me, above all between 1997 and 2002 when he was artistic director of the Radio Symphony Orchestra in Vienna. He initiated Still, and saw it through to its premiere with Kim Kashkashian and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra. Böse Zellen is dedicated to Dennis; he has been one of the lodestars in my life as a composer, and was extraordinarily supportive during the whole recording process, for which I am very grateful indeed.

Who are your ideal listeners, when it comes to your own music?
I have in mind a listener, who is familiar enough with the traditions of European classical music to recognise its various codes. Someone who can deal with structures and forms and yet who can enter into a sound world in a relatively naïve manner. I'm looking for a listener who in turn is looking for a dynamic relationship between the intellect and the emotions and can handle the ever-changing interaction of these two poles.

Interview: Anselm Cybinski


20.5.2010: BBC Lunchtime Concert, LSO St. Luke's, London
Sonata for Cello, Natalie Clein

6-13.6.2010: Festival Spannungen, Heimbach
Poems for Piano (world première), project and performance with children; Branches/Äste for Piano Trio

4.3.2011: Barbican, London
Violin Concerto, BBC Symphony Orchestra; Isabelle Faust, Violin; Kazuki Yamada, Conductor

7-9.4.2011: New work for orchestra
San Francisco Symphony, Osmo Vänskä, Conductor

8.8.2011: Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra
PROMS, Royal Albert Hall, London
Victoria Mullova, Matthew Barley, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Ilan Volkov, Conductor

Till Fellner, piano, was born in Vienna where he studied with Helene Sedo-Stadler. Following this he also studied with Alfred Brendel, Meira Farkas, Oleg Maisenberg and Claus-Christian Schuster. His international career took off in 1993 when he was awarded first prize at the Concours Clara Haskil in Vevey. In October 2008 he embarked on a series of seven concerts during which he will play the complete cycle of all Beethoven's piano sonatas, at venues in New York, Washington, Tokyo, London, Paris and Vienna. Till Fellner's recordings of Bach for ECM's New Series have met with the most enthusiastic critical acclaim. Fanfare described his interpretations of Beethoven's Piano Concertos No. 4 and No. 5, with Kent Nagano and the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, as a "stunning achievement".

Kim Kashkashian, viola, born into an Armenian family living in Detroit, studied with Walter Trampler and Karen Tuttle at the Peabody Conservatory. She quickly established in international reputation with wins at several major competitions that were tied to engagements with leading orchestras and conductors. Kashkashian has worked closely with composers such as György Kurtág, Tigran Mansurian, Sofia Gubaidulina and Giya Kancheli; compositions dedicated to her and transcriptions made specifically for her have significantly extended the viola repertoire. Her recordings for ECM have won numerous awards; besides works with orchestra, she has recorded albums with two duo-partners, Robert Levin (piano) and Robyn Schulkowsky (percussion); her most recent release is Neharót (2009), with works by Olivero, Mansurian and Steinberg (2009).

Dennis Russell Davies, born in Toledo, Ohio (1944), has conducted numerous recordings for ECM with the music of Mozart, Pärt, Kancheli and Stravinsky, to name but a few. Besides championing the work of composers such as Henze, Cage, Glass, Pärt and Kancheli, he has also instigated many new commissions. As a former Chief Conductor in Bonn, Vienna and elsewhere, in 2002 Davies was appointed Artistic Director of the Bruckner Orchestra in Linz and of the Linz Opera. Davies is Professor of Conducting at the Mozarteum Salzburg; since the beginning of the season 2009-10 he has held the position of Conductor in Chief of the Basel Symphony Orchestra.

The Quatuor Diotima, founded by graduates of the conservatoires in Paris and Lyon, received a number of important awards in 1999 and 2000. With its reference to Luigi Nono's only string quartet (Fragmente - Stille. An Diotima), the name of the quartet signals its members' special commitment to contemporary music. True to their intentions, they have premiered and given first performances of works by composers such as Brice Pauset, James Dillon, Hanspeter Kyburz and more. Widely acclaimed for their recordings, their performances of the two string quartets of Leoš Janacék have elicited a particularly warm response amongst critics and the public alike.

The Münchener Kammerorchester, founded in 1950, thrived for almost forty years under the baton of Hans Stadlmair; in 1995 Christoph Poppen introduced a greater degree of experimentation into the orchestra's programming, which now allows contemporary music and the traditional repertoire to rub shoulders as equals. The MKO has presented a number of highly innovative concert series; the orchestra's recordings for ECM – most recently in the form of an encounter between Haydn and Isang Yun - have met with critical accolades both at home and abroad.