Album review: Compelling Thomas Larcher double-bill from Hannu Lintu and the FRSO

Although Hannu Lintu closed his tenure as Chief Conductor of the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra in the midst of pandemic lockdown back in May 2021, fabulous recorded documents of their extraordinary collaboration still keep coming. Last year alone, Lintu and the FRSO released no less than three notable albums of contemporary music. In the summer of 2021, discs devoted to the music of Magnus Lindberg and Sebastian Fagerlund appeared on Ondine and BIS, respectively.

Wrapping the year up, their latest release on Ondine presents us with two substantial works by Thomas Larcher, Symphony No. 2 Kenotaph (2015-16) for orchestra and Die Nacht der Verlorenen (2008) for baritone and ensemble. Recorded at the FRSO’s Helsinki Music Centre home in January 2019 and May 2021, the two scores are given intense and wonderfully detailed outings, beautifully served by the recording team, both in session and post-production. 

As a result, we get not only one of the finest albums of the Lintu era, but perhaps the single most compelling sonic testimony of the unique vision and impact of Larcher’s output by far. 

Originally conceived as a concerto for orchestra, Larcher’s four-movement Symphony No. 2 is fashioned in the manner of a classical symphony, while retaining fine-tuned instrumental design of a concertante score. There is a large orchestra at play, one of triple winds and brass, full strings, five percussionists playing a vast array of pitched and non-pitched instruments, as well as accordion, harp, celesta and prepared piano. 

”I want to explore the forms of our musical past under the light of the (musical and human) developments we have been part of during our lifetime. How can we find tonality that speaks in our time? And how can the old forms speak to us? These are questions I often ask myself. This piece is very much about different forms of energy: bundled, scattered, smooth, kinetic or furious”, the composer writes in his note. 

Clocking at circa 35 minutes, the symphony is rooted in intense sonorous narrative. The subtitle, Kenotaph, refers to a monument for the dead or an empty tomb for those missing and pressed dead, Larcher’s symphony is haunted by the tragedies of numerous refugees drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. Commissioned by the National Bank of Austria for its bicentenary and premiered by the Wiener Philharmoniker under Semyon Bychkov in June 2016, Kenotaph makes a powerful statement, both musically and societally. 

Symphony No. 2 opens with a percussive bang, followed by a series of pulsating figures, gradually taking shape, with their flow broken by pauses. After a while, a second subject emerges in the guise of sustained strings, supported by a keyboard beat. A brief violin solo is heard before the opening subject returns for fully-fledged orchestral workout, clad in ever-permuting instrumental combinations. 

As the movement unravels, the tensions within keep mounting, until the music reaches its sonic high-point, where arpeggiated wind lines and chorale-like string passages merge into a vast seascape wrought of deep-etched orchestral sonorities. Towards the end, Larcher’s maritime tableau eventually dissolves into a brief afterthought from bass drum, tam-tam, triangle and strings, enigmatically vanishing behind the sounding horizon. 

A brief solo quartet of two violas, cello and double bass sets the mood for the second movement, joined by winds and brass over the next bars. Music of flickering moonlight, the Adagio moves slowly from one harmonic field to another, with its sublimely transforming orchestral fabric. This murmuring still-life is broken by an agitated orchestral burst, followed by a frozen coda. 

The Scherzo launches into sardonic dance from the very first bar. Dancing around in repeated iterations, the music gets finally stuck on a single chord, repeated over and over until a breaking-point is reached. Closing with a brief Ländler postlude, this is a movement of stirring contrasts. 

Larcher’s Finale begins with a slow introduction, where musical shapes, melodic ideas and rhythmic fragments, gradually emerge from mist and hue. The movement proper is rooted in vehement beats for full orchestra, clad in constantly changing textures. After much roar and anguish, the orchestral tumult crashes into a pier and fades into silence. A heart-wrenching coda of translucent beauty ensues. Briefly ringed out, the music submerges into dark murmur and, eventually, to nothingness.    

A performance of tremendous intensity and admirable translucence, caught in a live setting, Symphony No. 2 is an impressive affair, commanding the listener’s full attention with its intricate sonorities and deep-running emotional roots. The superlative FRSO is certainly in top-shape here, fully tuned to Lintu’s compelling vision of the score.

Keeping in tune with Symphony No. 2, the album concludes with the song cycle Die Nacht der Verlorenen (2008). Commissioned by South Bank Centre London and Casa da Musica Porto, the six-movement, thirty-minute cycle was first performed by Matthias Goerne and the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Martyn Brabbins in September 2008.

The texts for Die Nacht der Verlorenen are derived from a series of posthumously published late fragments from Ingeborg Bachmann. For Larcher, these brief excerpts served as a source for inspired innovation.

”Nowhere do we find that ’artless path’, of which the writer herself spoke, more clearly disclosed that in these fragments, scraps, bursts. However, this brittleness, this rawness, made the texts interesting to set. Here I was encountering not polished surfaces but instead rough stones, on to which I could hold and claw my way forward”, the composer writes.

Conceived as series of intense vocal meditations, the musical material of the cycle seemingly derives from somewhat similar sonic sphere as the one the Symphony inhabits.

Reflective and candle-lit, with deep shadows, the songs constitute an acute sequence of nocturnal mindsets, with detailed vocal lines woven together with the intricate sonic combinations from the large ensemble.

Occasionally, the ensemble takes over, resorting into introductions and interludes of striking commentary and acute ambience.

Mahlerian in their resignation, perhaps, Larcher’s settings constitute an exquisite hall of mirrors, where vocal musings, contemplative textures and troubled moods are woven together into a night-journey of bewitched insightfulness.

Performed with remarkable sensitivity and intensity in a lockdown studio setting in the spring of 2021 by baritone Andrè Schuen and the members of the FRSO with Lintu, their recorded take on Die Nacht der Verlorenen comes of beautifully on the Ondine disc, providing an exteneded afterthought to the aural tableaux evoked by the Symphony.

A perfect match, these extraordinary performances make up one terrific disc.

Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Hannu Lintu, conductor

Andrè Schuen, baritone

Thomas Larcher: Symphony No. 2 ”Kenotaph” (2015-16) for orchestra

Die Nacht der Verlorenen (2008) for baritone and ensemble

Recorded at the Helsinki Music Centre in January 2019 (Symphony No. 2) and May 2021 (Die Nacht der Verlorenen)

Ondine ODE 1393-2 (2021), 1 CD

© Jari Kallio

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