Photo by Andre Schoenherr
Artillery Row Lebrecht's Album of the Week

Music of hypnotic power

Thomas Larcher: The Living Mountain (ECM New Series)


The first rule of recording used to be: never bring out an unknown work unless it is performed by a world-famous artist. Anything less would be commercial suicide. I cannot remember any major company ever breaking this rule. The only transgressors were fringe labels with zero overheads who, like Indian gurus, cultivated a tribe of true believers who bought into whatever they did. The supreme Maharishi of this peripheral cult was ECM’s Manfred Eicher, and he is still going strong in Munich after 54 years of doing his own thing — backing obscure scores from the medievalist Morales to Meredith Monk with artists as little-known as the stuff they played.

You start out listening with amused tolerance and wind up transfixed

Eicher’s latest release is another punt into the unknown. The composer Thomas Larcher is an Austrian of esoteric tendencies. Mystical to a fault, his latest collection consists of two solo vocal settings of enigmatic English texts by Nan Shepherd and W. G. Sebald, framing a cello concerto for chamber orchestra with piano obbligato. The solo cellist Alisa Weilerstein is the only familiar name in this pack, and the sleeve notes babble away about “shared breath” and “whispering leaves”. Its title, Ourobouros, has something to do with a snake that eats itself tail first.

Eicher being Eicher, you start out listening with amused tolerance and wind up transfixed by music of hypnotic power, driving towards an inescapable destiny. The cover image tilts the imagination in an ecological direction, but the orchestral writing of the title track draws little from mother nature. It tinkles and tintinnabulates, using an accordion for colour and a soprano (Sarah Aristidou) who soars but seldom swoops. Don’t ask me what it all means. The Sebald set, for high baritone, is a throwback to John Cage’s prepped pianos and magic mushrooms, a modernism so late it is almost trending. I listened out of duty and ended up liking it enough for a third hearing. The last rule of a dying record industry is: there are no rules.

Manfred Eicher’s products are now streamed by mainstream Deutsche Grammophon. Go figure.

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