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A Characteristically Haunting, Dynamic New Album of Michael Hersch Works

Composer and pianist Michael Hersch was scheduled to play a marathon weekend at the Irondale Center in Greenpoint back in April. Hersch, who is best known for his compositions, is also a ferociously intense musician and rarely performs, so the series of shows promised to be one of the concert highlights of the year.

The lockdown killed that.

Fortunately, Hersch already had the material recorded. One of the albums featuring works on the bill is his recent release Carrion-Miles to Purgatory, streaming at Bandcamp.

The first work is titled …das Ruckgrat berstand (German for “bent back” ), a setting of Christopher Middleton poems translated into German and performed by  Patricia Kopatchinskaja on violin and vocals alongside Jay Campbell on cello. Sometimes horizontal and ambient, other times disquietingly stark, it contrasts long, airy, doppler-like phrases and acidic close harmonies punctuated by Hersch’s signature short, sharp, sometimes shrieking accents.

Music for Violin and Piano is a pastiche of excerpts from earlier Hersch works, culled from a 2018 concert at National Sawdust – only the second time violinist Miranda Cuckson and Hersch had performed together. He’s a whirlwind on the keys, his sudden, leaping, clustering phrases sometimes evoking Frederic Rzewski, but with a lot more space between phrases (a signature Hersch trope). The otherworldly, eerie minimalism of Messiaen and the dark, persistent restlessness of Ran Blake are other points of comparison. Cuckson’s jagged leads and wary sustain provide an anchor, such that there is in this relentlessly uneasy partita.

The album’s title suite comprises fifteen pieces for violin and cello, inspired by texts by Robert Lowell – madness, torment and death are recurrent themes in Hersch’s work. Austere clouds of harmony slowly shift through the sonic picture. Minute timbral changes alternate between airiness and grit, often drifting into richly unsettled microtonal territory. Sudden swells and fades give way to keening, oscillating harmonics, occasional Bartokian irony or muted gloom. The finale is a drifting, Shostakovian elegy. It’s music to get completely lost in, yet Hersch always finds a way to jar the themes out of any kind nof resolution.

This doesn’t have the sheer horror of Kopatchinskaja and International Contemporary Ensemble’s performance of Hersch’s End Stages, but it’s still plenty riveting. Of all the composers working in new music today, Hersch is as individualistic as anyone and may well be the very best.

July 16, 2020 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Two Michael Hersch Works Top the List of the Most Disturbing Music of 2018

One of the most sepulchral and chilling albums of recent years is the Blair String Quartet’s 2014 recording of Michael Hersch’s Images From a Closed Ward. That one was inspired by Michael Mazur sketches made inside a Rhode Island mental asylum in the early 1960s. The latest recording of Hersch’s characteristically harrowing work is even more so, evoking the fitful last gasps and lingering pain of the final stages of terminal illness. Hersch’s Violin Concerto, performed by soloist Patricia Kopatchinskaja with International Contemporary Ensemble is paired with his End Stages suite, played by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and streaming at New Focus Recordings.

The twisted march that introduces the concerto – arranged with an emphasis on strings rather than a full orchestra – kicks in with a savage downward slash from Kopatchinskaja. Within the first minute, the message is clear: the horror is going to be relentless. The brooding string quartets of Per Norgard are an antecedent. Kopatchinskaja’s role is less traditional soloist than member of the ensemble who gets the most shivery, terror-stricken lines and cruelly demanding cadenzas.

A sense of desperation pervades this piece, foreshadowing the suite to follow, Evil faces from every corner of the sonic picture peek out and then slash at each other, the horns rising over a cruel, emphatic low note from the piano. Astringent microtones linger side by side, a macabre march anchoring the shrieks overhead – not that anyone would want to be anchored in this skin-peeling acidity.

That’s the first movement. In the second, Similar shrieks burst from accordion-like textures throughout as much welcome calm as there is, the occasional piano accent piercing the veil. The third is a vast, spacious, defeated tableau punctuated by funereal piano, a horrified fragment from the strings eventually leading to a horrified quasi-march with a frantic couple of duels amid the string section, then a series of cruelly sarcastic faux-fanfares. The stillness in the fourth remains constant and sadistically icy: Hersch’s orchestration is every bit as inventive as his music is disturbing.

End Stages, which is also a microtonal work, begins with an austere mist punctuated by a sudden evocation of a scream or a brief moment of neoromantic clarity. The rest of the movements, many of them barely a minute or two long, shift from surreal, cinematic, conversational exchanges, to macabre dirges.

Bells and stark string horror permeate the third movement. There could be a death in a sudden pained cadenza here, and also in the grim codas of the fourth and fifth, puncturing their lingering, ghastly suspense. A sadistic parody of churchbells and grey-sky Shostakovian ambience sit side by side with long shrieking motives and every foreshadowing device ever invented, as these tortured voices stare down the end.  This is the best piece of new orchestral music since Julia Wolfe’s Cruel Sister album back in 2011.

October 5, 2018 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment