Symphony No. 2 “Kenotaph” (2015–2016)

Commissioned by Oesterreichische Nationalbank for its 200th anniversary
WP: 03.06.2016, Vienna (AT), Musikverein | Semyon Bychkov (conductor), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra

I Allegro
II Adagio
III Scherzo, Molto Allegro
IV Introduzione, Molto Allegro

Orchestra instrumentation
3(, 3.pic).3(, 3.bcl&cbcl)3.(3.cbsn)-4.3(1.pictpt).3.1-timp.5perc-acc.cel.pno(with preparation).hp-str( [db4-6 are 5 string basses])


Semyon Bychkov (conductor), BBC Symphony Orchestra | BBC Proms, London August 2016

Programme note
Originally conceived as a concerto for orchestra, Thomas Larcher’s Symphony No. 2 takes the form of a classical symphony but retains elements of the original idea, reaching from the intimacy of chamber music to the immense diversity of a full orchestra.

‘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.’ (Thomas Larcher)

Michael Church: Prom 57 (…) Thomas Larcher’s “Cenotaph” makes old symphonic forms newly relevant
(The Independent, 1.9.2016)

“… His music is always instinctive and emotional, yet it possesses a watchmaker’s precision; its stock-in-trade includes biting dissonances, cinematic cross-cuts, and startling shifts in volume, timbre, and tone. What is quintessentially classical is the care and clarity with which he lays out each work’s structure.

In this new work all those qualities are there in spades. Each of its four movements is fastidiously shaped, and in each there are outbursts of anarchically dissonant fury. But under Semyon Bychkov’s baton the BBC Symphony Orchestra delivered a superbly detailed performance, with the sudden turns into pastiche-Mahler and pastiche-Bach opening like wondrous flowers in a parched terrain …”

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Tim Ashley: BBCSO/Bychkov review – faultless and furious Larcher premiere

(The Guardian, 29.8.2016)

“Thomas Larcher’s formidable symphony commemorating refugees drowned in the Mediterranean builds to a climax of tremendous irony and power. (…)

It’s a formidable score, angry yet lyrical, and rooted in the mainstream symphonic tradition, though it also pushes at the boundaries of conventional structure. Larcher argues that his music is not programmatic – that it does not “convey messages, but asks questions”. But it’s difficult not to hear the heaving of a treacherous sea beneath the formal crisis of the opening movement, or the intimation of dangerously becalmed waters in the grieving adagio. The sonorities are by turns lucid and brutal, and the climax comes with a battering scherzo that furiously demands answers, only to be greeted with a banal ländler that reeks of indifference and contempt. It’s a moment of tremendous irony and power. You couldn’t fault the performance …”

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Anna Picard: Prom 57: BBCSO/ Bychkov at the Royal Albert Hall
(The Times, 28.08.2016)

“The sound worlds in this ostensibly straightforward three-work concert were complementary, and Larcher’s new symphony exquisite.

Thomas Larcher’s Symphony No 2, Cenotaph, opens with a violent slap of sound. Smeared and blurred strings quickly cool the crimson cheek, interrupted by cauterised fanfares, fragmented hymns, sweet laments for solo violin and clarinet, a cobalt swell of sound from harp, celesta, vibraphone and prepared piano. In Semyon Bychkov’s taut performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the UK premiere, there was little doubt that Cenotaph was being treated as an important, maybe great, new work — about time too, given the parochial quality of some of this year’s new works.

Larcher’s chamber music holds itself at an exquisite distance from its often disordered subject matter. In Cenotaph he has switched off the air conditioning and stepped out from behind the lens. There are oil drums, biscuit tins and mixing bowls in the percussion section — detritus from what the composer describes as “a man-made disaster”: the drowning of thousands in the Mediterranean. Yet the symphony is as much about Europe (and Europe’s history) as it is about those who died trying to reach it: a muted funeral chorale for bassoons, violas and cellos that conjures Berg; gauzy tremors for high strings; a wistful Mahlerian Ländler placed like a question mark at the close of the
scherzo …”

Jens F. Laurson: The Rebirth Of Contemporary Classical Music? The Vienna Philharmonic Plays Larcher
(, 6.6.2016)

… How did it sound? The Allegro of Kenotaph opens like Ravel’s Piano Concerto, with a whack of the clapper that spurns the orchestra into metallic spurts of activity that in turn run up the music to repeated mini-climaxes with lacunae of string solemnity between them. (The latter mildly reminiscent of Arvo Pärt or Zbigniew Preisner.) The rhythms are catchy, the noise makes sense, the tones have perceivable sequences and the violence of it keeps you awake and the tenderness on tenterhooks. Classical music has enough in common with the hard rock and metal genres, but in parts of Kenotaph it becomes particularly obvious with the rhythmic string riffs and the driving percussion section giving of their best. In this fast-moving Allegro, the viola – accompanied by a violin halo and sympathetic gongs – gets a moment shine. And although there is also plenty banging on pots (sounds like that, at least) and a triangle stuck on pianissimo, one doesn’t have time to question traditional ideals of beauty and convention… or by the time one does, the second movement Adagio has already begun and consoles immediately with swaths cut perhaps from Mahler by way of Schnittke. There’s a fragile beauty in this, and a melodic phrase reminiscent of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony appears and re-appears throughout. Somewhere within the strings hides an accordion and adds its distinct color – and then the movement melts away as if taking leave. It hasn’t gone, however, and violently reminds of its continued presence only to fall back into its own like an aborted soufflé with the solo violin ushering the movement out with said Mahleresque phrase.

Prokofiev and Tim Burton films were at the back of my mind listening to the Scherzo; Molto allegro third movement in which the five-head, ten-arm strong percussion group gets to try out every instrument they found in the storage rooms of the Musikverein. An increasingly louder marching 1-2-1-2 array of repeated chords, played by the foot-soldier violins and battery of percussion, ratchets up the tension, deliciously primitive, and stands out… before the clarinets pretend that nothing of that sort of thing ever happened. One could almost construct it as an allegory of Austrian history, though what was intended might have rather been an allusion to Karlheinz Stockhausen’sKlavierstück No.9 with its 140 repeated chords (count along with Maurizio Pollini performing it live in Paris) which are equaled or just beaten by Kenotaph.

The fourth movement brings about more marshalling of martial forces in contrasting blocks. The recipe worked well for much of the symphony already and it continues to do so, even 30, 35 minutes into it. If it failed to elicit outright enthusiasm among some of the more colorfully aged patrons (one persistent booer; a few nonplussed non-clappers amid otherwise much enthusiasm), at least it inspired gratitude for being so much less convoluted than the pessimists might have feared. But really, Kenotaph is much more than this: it is a superbly entertaining symphonic tour de force… challenging and consoling, spiky and beautiful and with a conciliatory ending as that “Mahler-9” motif (if that’s what it is) comes back as an acoustic Ariadne’s thread of sorts (with the first violins and clarinets this time) and quietly lets the symphony draw its last breath.

A kenotaph or cenotaph is an empty, symbolical tomb and the work was inspired by the crisis of men, women, and children fleeing the clutches of war and mayhem in the Middle East and the ensuing deaths of drowning from refugees desperately trying to cross into Europe across the Mediterranean. The work was broadcast live on ORF and recorded for possible release by Deutsche Grammophon.

… What remains in the memory from this concert, though, won’t be another fine performance of the war-horse Heldenleben but the excitement felt at witnessing Kenotaph. I can’t wait until that will be the warhorse, accompanied by a new world premiere!

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Wilhelm Sinkovicz: “Kenotpah”: Eine neue Symphonie als Mahnmal
(Die Presse, 6.6.2016)

Thomas Larchers Zweite, “Kenotaph” genannt, ist ein außerordentlicher Wurf. … Auf den ersten Blick steht diese Zweite Symphonie Thomas Larchers in einer Reihe mit den großen Symphonien, die Wiens Meisterorchester in seinen ersten Dezennien uraufgeführt hat. Wie Brahms’ Zweite oder Mahlers Neunte hat auch diese Novität vier Sätze, noch dazu in „klassischer“ Reihenfolge, mit einem Adagio und einem Scherzo als Mittelblock. Doch definiert Larcher die symphonische Form neu. Wer seinen Werdegang verfolgt hat, weiß, dass der Tiroler Pianist und Komponist als Interpret wie als schöpferischer Kopf sich wendig zwischen den Stilen bewegt, sich unterschiedlichste Ausdrucksmöglichkeiten zunutze macht. Sein Handwerk beherrscht er, nützt die Klangfülle des Orchesters zu vielfältigen Farbwirkungen.

Die Graviationskraft von a-Moll

Gerade diese Wendigkeit garantiert ihm, dass er ganz Larcher bleiben kann. Einer „Richtung“ ist er nicht zuzurechnen, auch wenn er bewusst mit den Gravitationskräften der Tonalität spielt, sie als Ausdrucksmittel nützt. Der Titelzusatz „Kenotaph“ („leeres Grab“, Ehrenmal für Tote) verweist auf die Flüchtlingswelle, die zur Zeit der Entstehung des Werks anrollte, und auf die Bootskatastrophen im Mittelmeer. Ein leeres Grab, ein tönendes Mahnmal für die, die den sinnlosen Tod sterben mussten, das ist diese Symphonie wohl auch. Aber das muss der Hörer so konkret nicht wissen, um die tiefere Botschaft der Töne dechiffrieren zu können.

In gewissem Sinne knüpft Larcher an die Tradition der Programm-Musiken an, die im Gefolge der Neudeutschen Schule um Franz Liszt die scheinbar klassizistische Symphonik durchdrang und spätestens bei Mahler zu einer offenkundigen Anreicherung überkommener Form-Schemata mit pittoresken Klang-Erzählungen führte. Aus Symphonien, ob im herkömmlichen viersätzigen Gewand oder nicht, wurden „Dramen ohne Worte“.

Spätestens seit Mahlers Hammerschlägen, Alban Bergs Zitaten von Bach-Chorälen und Kärntner Volksliedern oder Schostakowitschs komponierten Granaten-Einschlägen weiß der Konzertbesucher auch um die doppelten Böden von, oberflächlich betrachtet, simplen Zeichensetzungen innerhalb solcher „Konzertsaal-Tragödien“, denen Larcher eine weitere, höchst eindrucksvolle hinzugefügt hat.

Eine „Konzertsaal-Tragödie“

Auch in seinem „Kenotaph“ gibt es drastische Metaphern. So schließt das Scherzo nicht einfach ein stilleres Trio ein, sondern entartet in eine Folge von immer intensiver, immer rascher aufeinander folgenden Schlägen, unter denen die musikalische Struktur völlig zusammenbricht. Aus den Trümmern dringen dann die Klänge eines Ländlers hervor; ob die Assoziation mit der angesichts der Katastrophe noch weiter musizierenden „Titanic“-Kapelle ganz falsch ist?

Alle vier Sätze der Larcherschen Symphonie stechen nach altvertrautem Allegro- oder Adagio-Muster in See, um sich aufzulösen und unterzugehen; nicht nur die rhythmisch-metrischen, die melodisch-thematischen Strukturen zerfleddern, auch die stets klar definierten tonalen Zuordnungen driften in einen vagen, unsicheren harmonischen Raum.

Dass die Aussage auch die Form dieses Werks definiert, rechtfertigt – im nach-mahlerschen Verständnis – die Wahl des Genres: „Kenotaph“ ist nicht nur der äußeren Form nach eine veritable Symphonie. Womit es einem Österreicher gelungen wäre, Haydns Form für das 21. Jahrhundert zu „aktualisieren“. Die Philharmoniker unter Widmungsträger Semjon Bytschkow haben den Rang dieses außerordentlichen Wurfs – vor einer Aufführung des altvertrauten „Heldenlebens“ von Richard Strauss – auf engagierte Weise unter Beweis gestellt und damit dem Komponisten den verdienten Erfolg erspielt.

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