THOMAS LARCHER: Smart Dust; Poems; What Becomes; A Padmore Cycle – Tamara Stefanovich, piano/ Mark Padmore, tenor/ Thomas Larcher, piano – Harmonia mundi HMU 907604, 73:21 ***1/2:

My previous encounter with Thomas Larcher is as a pianist.  This is my first exposure to his music, and it is somewhat of a mixed bag. I cannot for one second fault his performances (Padmore Cycle only), and Tamara Stefanovich plays with authority and a great deal of persuasion as well. Mark Padmore, being himself, is a known quantity and hardly disappoints.

So what’s the issue?

As I mentioned, it’s only half an issue because that’s about how much of this disc I really like. Any review of this kind is of course very subjective as far as the music itself goes. Larcher says that he feels that the high points in “statement, form, and virtuosity” are last exemplified by the Rachmaninoff Third and Bartok Second piano concertos, where traditional pianistic methods can say something new. Okay—though this is not a difficult argument to rebuff, it’s a valid opinion. And Larcher seems to be someone searching for new piano sounds, mentioning electronic music as an attempt to create something different than the sounds we are all used to hearing from traditional instruments. But then he says “I wanted to interrupt this trend and elicit from the piano new sounds and means of expression that would turn it into a ‘different instrument’, able once again to speak for our time.”  He mentions that all the works he composed then (and Smart Dust “concludes” this development, but even here this was in 2005) were for prepared piano, played directly on the strings.

Fine. But this comes across to me as extraordinarily anachronistic. As far back as 1912 this was being done in some pieces to imitate percussion instruments, and since around 1938 John Cage followed by a host of others made this technique a staple of the repertory. So hearing this now, from 2005, seems like something hearkening back to another age, long forgotten except when old pieces are performed now just like any others. To consider it some kind of “discovery” at this point, well, doesn’t make a lot of sense.

That being said, I find Smart Dust to be unconvincing. The title refers to dust sensors that can detect all sorts of microscopic movements, of varying types and degrees. The wildness of the piece—in spots anyway—doesn’t exactly match the rather techno-oriented description enough to be considered commonplace or even observable by most people, and on its own divorced from any sort of program doesn’t hold together. I could say somewhat the same thing about Poems, brief, description-laden works of simplicity that almost remind one of a sort of “tonal” Anton Webern. I find them very static and lacking surprise, which makes the whole a bit of a struggle to listen to. These came about when the composer decided to return to simplicity of the natural piano sound.

But then—whoosh! A piece like What Becomes come along, and a different world is entered. Leif Ove Andsnes inspired it, and set conditions for it (a “normal” recital program, whatever that means) but Larcher was able to meet the demands and created a very engaging and engrossing work of art. Likewise,  the Padmore Cycle, so called because it was written for tenor Mark Padmore, who navigates Larcher’s musical explorations through poems by two friends about the natural environment, something important to the composer. This is another captivating piece.

So liking half of the works of any new composer isn’t too bad, and in this case 44 minutes makes for a good-sized half out of 73. Interesting stuff for the curious and adventurous, well-crafted for the most part and done with panache.

—Steven Ritter