RECORDING REVIEWS

MICHAEL HERSCH: LAST AUTUMN

"Last Autumn is an enormous forty-one movement commentary on, or extension of, W. G. Sebald's prose poem 'After Nature' ... Having had early successes with works for large forces, Hersch has latterly turned to pieces of expansive duration for a small number of musicians of whom the utmost dedication and technical and expressive prowess are required. A pervasive melancholy is present throughout the work, with episodes of shocking violence; the succession of movements coalesces into a large structure, masterfully ebbing and flowing but with an underlying tension that is never absent ... A powerful and disturbing listening experience..." — Records International

"Hersch continues to impress as one of the foremost compositional voices of our times ... He manages to construct a long-form chamber work that, like some architectural masterpieces, obscures the structural support, the beams and joists that enable the graceful magnificence of the seen (heard) end result to hold together. There is an immediacy to the music, the expressiveness of beauty and brutality together ..." — Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music

MICHAEL HERSCH - IMAGES FROM A CLOSED WARD

"Like the series of lithographs and etchings by Michael Mazur that inspired it, this 13-movement string quartet by Michael Hersch is dark and unsettling. And like those black-and-white images of inmates of a mental hospital in the 1960s, Mr. Hersch’s music is beautiful in a timeless, eternal-night sort of way. The fine Blair Quartet brings intensity and suspense to the dense harmonies that move by turns with creeping dread and desperate urgency."
— The New York Times

"Commissioned by the Blair String Quartet, who throw themselves into the recording as if not only their life but the composer's as well depended on the relentless intensity of every bar, Michael Hersch's 'Images From a Closed Ward' demonstrates the extreme musical and emotional lengths to which a composer and a string quartet will go these days to maintain a serious relationship. Hersch's grim graphic quartet responding to Michael Mazur's etchings and lithographs of inmates in a Rhode Island psychiatric hospital during the early 1960s lives a separate though equally haunted life from its visual inspiration. It tells no narrative story, only disquieting human agony. Although the music's searing pain and endless despair, desperately trying to escape mortality - which erupts most violently in the 10-minute 11th movement - never really subside, a radiant core seems to emerge in the third of the music's 13 untitled movements. This core leads gradually over time to the possibilities of peace through release and consolation ..." — Gramophone Magazine

"... It is the sound of a string quartet playing with rage and inconsolable sadness." — ArtNowNashville

"... aurally stunning ... Hersch utilizes a refreshing, bracing, and innovative admixture of dissonance and consonance ... Hersch’s music is not “easy listening.” Indeed, it is difficult listening, difficult in the sense that one cannot listen to this work as background music if one’s desire is to tune in to what the composer is attempting to communicate. It is, I assure you, worth the effort for those whose ears are acclimated to the music of our time, and find rewards in music that does not yield all of its secrets in a single audition ... The Blair String Quartet plays with commendable intonation and flair, and produces an amazing array of colors ... Highly recommended for the adventurous."
— Fanfare Magazine

"This is important music ... it is hard to imagine adding anything more around it. It is dissonant, but not abstract by any means. It makes me want to get those people out of there and communicate with them. People need to open their minds to the world. The Blair Quartet plays with conviction and offers such solace as they can. That goes for the music as well. This is sad stuff, but Hersch tries to make it an open door to the rest of life." — American Record Guide

"...the journey left you in a figurative blindfold taken off momentarily to glimpse another previously unimaginable terrain." — The Philadelphia Inquirer

"... not a note is wasted. Every note or phrase has its purpose. One of his (Hersch’s) markings is 'haunted, stricken.' If anyone knows the trick of expressing agony in music, he does. And his command of craft, overall, is something rare. Often at his premieres, we say, 'We have heard something important. We have heard music that will last,' I felt just this way about Images from a Closed Ward." — City Arts

MICHAEL HERSCH - THE WRECKAGE OF FLOWERS - WORKS FOR VIOLIN
Miranda Cuckson, violin; Blair McMillen, piano

MORE INFORMATION

"Michael Hersch writes music that can take the tiniest of gestures and within seconds wreak havoc on one's emotional state. The brief Fourteen Pieces for unaccompanied violin on texts of Primo Levi take on images of dread - "dense violent dreams," one line reads ... The sixth movement beginning "I won't go far," sounds like a tentative but graceful reaching -- a trapeze artists with no net stretching an arm out." — The Newark Star-Ledger (2011)

"In his typically uncompromising manner, composer Michael Hersch collects his violin chamber works - all of which emotionally go for broke but in different ways - onto a single disc, no matter how heavy-going it might initially seem. All three works - Fourteen Piecesthe wreckage of flowers, and Five Fragments - come from a period (2003-2007) when Hersch was writing intense but tiny micromovements. Fourteen Pieces, for example, has 14 movements in 31 minutes. ... Hersch supplies accompanying poetic fragments by Primo Levi and Czeslaw Milosz that give the ear a needed compass in his wintry journeys. ... the performances are completely up to the often-explosive demands of the music ..." — The Philadelphia Inquirer

"Both the 14 Pieces and The Wreckage of Flowers take the inspiration for their brief, aphoristic movements from fragments of poetry; of Primo Levi in the one case, and Czeslaw Milosz in the other. Both sets of texts share a sense of desolation, and both contain powerful imagery of nature ... Abrupt gestures - some quite tonal, others decidedly not - decay into silent voids; lamenting melodies alternate with violent chordal playing; virtuoso filigree gives way to sombre meditativeness. The result is a highly expressive, quasi-programmatic series of images. The generally more somber Milosz pieces are similarly evocative, with eerie shadings of violin tone, while the piano part interacts with the violin in brusque clusters or in dialogue that can be complementary or confrontational, according to the poetic context. The little Fragments have no accompanying text, but heard in the context of the other works with their evocative vividness, they seem to imply imagery and narrative of their own." — Records International

MICHAEL HERSCH: SONATAS NOS. 1 & 2 FOR UNACCOMPANIED CELLO

Michael Hersch's Sonata No. 1 for unaccompanied cello is one of his earliest published works, written when he was 23, in 1994. The riveting piece, given a gripping performance by Daniel Gaisford, is included on the first of three discs featuring Mr. Hersch’s solo and chamber music for string instruments, being released by Vanguard Classics. The intensity and communicative power of this sonata, at times an anguished lament, is typical of much of Mr. Hersch’s work, which also includes symphonies, a piano concerto and “The Vanishing Pavilions,” a 2006 work for solo piano lasting more than two hours. The sonata’s profoundly solitary, rhapsodic first movement veers between yearning lyricism and agitated outbursts. The reflective second movement, a showcase for Mr. Gaisford’s rich, penetrating tone and searing musicality, ebbs and flows into the harmonically rich final movement, with its virtuoso challenges and almost brutal intensity. Mr. Gaisford, who, to judge from this recording, deserves greater recognition, also offers a mesmerizing performance of Mr. Hersch’s seven-movement Sonata No. 2, composed in 2000. A similarly dark mood pervades the first movement, which sounds as if several cellos were playing a mournful chorale. Arpeggiated 16th notes in the second movement create multilayered waves of sound, in contrast to the spare, brief third movement, with its urgent six-note motif. The bitter chorale of the opening resurfaces in the terse fourth movement. Mr. Gaisford plays with probing commitment in the passionate fifth movement, a whirlwind of octave leaps and rapidly ascending figurations. The stark staccato motif of the third movement is reprised in the sixth. A poignant chorale pierces the arching finale, which fades to a whisper on a low G.
The New York Times

"I first became acquainted with Michael Hersch’s music through his monumental solo piano work The Vanishing Pavilions. The pieces recorded here adjust Hersch’s large and large-hearted soundworld to the somewhat more intimate and introverted genre of the unaccompanied sonata for cello. The genre has a long and distinguished history, characterized by big works that show off the expressive range of the instrument (and the player) as well as the virtuosic possibilities almost inherent in solo string playing. Hersch is solidly in that tradition here, with pieces that probe the nature of cello playing in the context of the composer’s very personal post 20th-century neo-modernism. The music is characterized by meditative lyricism or mysticism, punctuated by aggressively angular and rhythmically biting phrases. Daniel Gaisford plays these difficult (in every sense of the word) and supremely rewarding pieces with seemingly limitless technique and a musical personality as strong as Hersch’s. Their collaboration makes for an exciting and provocative musical experience." — Sequenza21.com

(four stars) "... an intricately constructed world with vast emotional scope." — The Philadelphia Inquirer

MICHAEL HERSCH - THE VANISHING PAVILIONS

"The evening felt downright historic. [Hersch] conjured volcanic gestures from the piano with astonishing virtuosity. Everything unfolds in open-ended, haiku-like eruptions, though built on ideas that recur throughout the 50 movements, from a lamenting, chantlike melody to passages of such speed and density you'd think the complete works of Franz Liszt were played simultaneously within three minutes. Overtly or covertly, The Vanishing Pavilions is about the destruction of shelter (both in fact and in concept) and life amid the absence of any certainty. And though the music is as deeply troubled as can be, its restless directness also commands listeners not to be paralyzed by existential futility." — The Philadelphia Inquirer (from the premiere performance)

"... he has composed one of the most unusual pieces in memory: The Vanishing Pavilions for piano, a work in two "books," as Hersch describes them, and taking about two hours and twenty minutes to play. Apart from his composing, Hersch is a brilliant pianist, and there could be no better advocate of his own music. ... the work is barely fathomable: reflecting terror, agony, wonder. I hesitate to describe it. It seems both intensely personal and universal. It is ferocious, desperate, manic; titanic, daunting, world-containing; visionary, apocalyptic, inexorable. You sometimes want to look away from it; it can be terrible to contemplate. And yet you still heed it. You sense that the piece is both reacting to this world and striving for something beyond. I intend to live with The Vanishing Pavilions for a while longer. It has gotten under my skin, as it must; it has even disturbed my sleep. A first hearing takes a considerable amount of time, especially given the lives so many of us now lead. But one hearing is plainly insufficient. Michael Hersch has something to say, and he bears listening to." — National Review (2007)

"Your deepest fears and most monumental anger seem to aired and examined -- in music that's an artistic expression of the highest sophistication, and never more so than in The Vanishing Pavilions. ... perhaps the most imposing work yet in an output that began imposingly more than a decade ago ..." — The Philadelphia Inquirer (2007)

"This is music of raw, elemental gravity, which proceeds at its own unhurried pace. The music of each movement has an immediate, visceral impact; it sounds like it springs from, and speaks to, some deep, primordial place, unmediated by any system or even the niceties of compositional correctness. The variety that Hersch's tonal and gestural palette brings to each movement, as well as the music's restless, unpredictable rhythmic energy, commands the listener's attention. Hersch's performance is stunning in its vitality and virtuosity."
— allmusic.com

"Hersch's daring and personal musical language displays a magnificent spectrum of colors and textures right from the start. Concentrated listening is a necessity for the audience and since this is a work of such gigantic proportions, it is no journey for the weak-minded. The composer performs his own work on this release and does so with outstanding commitment and virtuosity, which only adds to the qualities of this fascinating recording." — Muso Magazine

"This is an absolutely huge work that, despite its size, steadfastly refuses to sprawl.  There is an urgency and terseness to Michael Hersch's writing that retains interest from first to last.  The technical demands are vast.  This is disquieting music, to be sure.  It holds its spell not because it offers windows of hope but because it forces us to examine ourselves as we are now."— Fanfare Magazine

"His pianistic technique is seemingly limitless and his expressive resources vast." — sequenza21.com (2008)

MICHAEL HERSCH - CHAMBER MUSIC

"The disc, titled "Michael Hersch: Chamber Music," features Hersch himself on piano as well as string soloists from the Berlin Philharmonic. The disc's highlight is probably a vast octet for strings in 11 movements that lasts half an hour and seems an encyclopedic exploration of deepest darkness, shot through with anxious energy. A "Recordatio" for solo piano was inspired by the death of Luciano Berio, one of many diverse and extraordinary older composers (George Rochberg and Hans Werner Henze are two others) who have recognized and encouraged Hersch's melancholy genius. These are remarkably original and assured pieces -- best of all, Hersch, still in his early thirties, may just be getting started."
— The Washington Post (2004)

"... austere and uncompromising. What attracts the ear, and keeps it engaged, is Hersch’s acute ear for harmony. This manifests itself not only in the colours of the sounds themselves – but also in the way that glimmers of tonality emerge at key locations in a largely atonal landscape. But, then, Hersch clearly has an innate dramatic sensibility. His Octet is spread over 11 distinctly characterised movements (and at 31 minutes the largest work here), yet how inexorably it moves. The climax is placed in the 10th movement (and, interestingly, the dramatic shape of this movement appears to be a condensation of the work’s larger structure), while the final movement (a reprise of the second) serves as an anguished, angry and strangely familiar sounding epitaph. The effect is devastating.” — Gramophone Magazine


“With Hersch, you hear a sincere, emotionally raw voice with every utterance – often a harrowing experience. ... urgent, commanding, able to communicate without shouting and without cliche.”

— Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“This is a powerful, engaging, and most auspicious debut.” — Strings Magazine

HERSCH - JOSQUIN - RIHM - FELDMAN

" ... a natural musical genius who continues to surpass himself." — Tim Page (The Washington Post)
Hersch creates music of stark, austere beauty. He is also a brilliant pianist, as this darkly compelling program shows.

"He plays his own spare transcriptions of works by 15th century master Josquin des Prés, as well as Morton Feldman’s chilly “Piano Piece (for Philip Guston)”, the moody silences and sometimes gauzy, sometimes jangly textures of which he articulates with imposing power. In Wolfgang Rihm’s “Auf einem anderen Blatt”, Hersch’s palette ranges from diaphanous, petal-soft tones to startlingly metallic stabs. Of greatest interest are Hersch’s “Milosz Fragments”, inspired by the Nobel laureate’s poems and based on the composer’s 2003 work, the wreckage of flowers, and his Sonata No. 2 for Unaccompanied Cello. Daniel Gaisford brings the latter to life with astonishing virtuosity and a haunted lyricism ideally suited to Hersch’s somber muse. “Milosz Fragments” finds Hersch at his most tortured, traversing landscapes of uncompromising bleakness. An immensely rewarding disc.” — Time Out NY

“Hersch’s compositions, frequently singled out for their dark emotional intensity, should not be misconstrued as gothically despairing; more accurately, they fall in line with the stark spiritual introspection of Ingmar Bergman’s landmark films. ... this collection strikes a remarkable balance. Nothing feels forced to fit here, and it is to Hersch’s credit that his own works stand so strongly among such talented company. Excepting the cello sonata performed by Daniel Gaisford, Hersch himself is at the piano throughout. Both men perform with a palpable intensity... If one had to guess just by listening, Hersch did more than program this recording for commercial effect. Rather it’s as if he is writing a profoundly personal letter to the listener in which he shares much of both his intellectual and emotional self.” — Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Hersch is known as one of the world’s leading young composers. This stark, introspective program, ranging from transcriptions of fifteenth-century giant Josquin des Prés to Hersch’s own Milosz Fragments, highlights his equally remarkable gifts as a pianist.” — New York Newsday – Best of Year 2004

SYMPHONIES NOS. 1 & 2, FRACTA, ARRACHE'
Marin Alsop, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

"These performances confirm Michael Hersch (b.1971) as one of the most seriously engaging musical voices in the U.S. today. The Second Symphony marries a volcanic New World energy to a deeply skeptical, often angst-ridden spiritual climate. Alsop and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra are brilliant advocates." — Andrew Clark (The Financial Times, UK)

"(4 stars) Three years separate Michael Hersch's First and Second Symphonies. The first, composed in 1998, is hauntingly beautiful, densely textured with an inexorable sense of the organic. The second displays a rather more searching and adventurous style, where dramatic extremes and a more intense astringency are its lifeblood. There's an alluring boldness about this young American's music, which is noticeable too in Fracta and Arraché, both contained in this big-scale survey by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Marin Alsop." — The Scotsman

"For many young composers, early works tend to project a youthful sense of innocence and discovery. Composer Michael Hersch, however, seems to have entered adulthood painfully aware of the darker ways of the world - heard in this first disc of his orchestral works in no uncertain terms. Though frequently characterized as a descendant of Mahler and Berg, Hersch's music is more aptly compared to the sinister sound collages of Alfred Schnittke. But even with the distinctly American vigor of imagination Hersch stands pretty much alone in this country in terms of his confrontational musical idiom. That might have been a minus to some 1990s audiences, but now seems to define our time. His dissonances were always fascinating; now they're oddly comforting. The Symphony No. 2 and Arraché in particular stand up well among Hersch's recent work, especially in these compelling, comprehending performances. In fact, this may be conductor Marin Alsop's best recording yet."
— The Philadelphia Inquirer

"(Hersch) has made several recordings as a pianist, and a solo disc devoted to his keyboard and chamber music came out of Germany. Now, Naxos gives us a full-scale introduction to his orchestral music, and it's impressive. In contrast to the minimalism that has occupied so much of the classical landscape during the last 30 years, and in contrast to neo-romantics, Mr. Hersch comes off as an unapologetic modernist. His pieces don't really sound much like the Second Viennese School (Berg, Schoenberg), but they're not afraid of dissonance. They're not really reminiscent of the big American symphonies of the middle 20th century, either. They feel less nationalist than William Schuman's, less esoteric than Roger Sessions'. But they share those composers' sense of scale and drama. The younger composer loves big gestures played off against solo laments. He favors the orchestra's lowest voices: tuba, cello and double bass, big bass drum. Notice the chimes that ring in the Symphony No.1. They immediately announce that something epic is happening. ... this music rewards repeated listening. The performances by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Marin Alsop are all you could wish for." — The Dallas Morning News

"The Second Symphony leads off the disc. Cast in four movements, the last three played without pause, this nineteen-minute work begins as a violent, nightmarish torrent, then subsides to an unsettling calm. There are further outbursts and contrasting sections of calm throughout the symphony, but above the proceedings lingers a sense of anger and darkness. In the end, one assesses the work as a profound outpouring inspired by some tragedy. The insightful notes, by Andrew Druckenbrod, mention that the symphony was written in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy, but that Hersch has acknowledged no connection to it here. Much in the notes is also made of Hersch's use of clusters in his orchestration and soundscape, but suffice it to say here that this unusual work, with its deftly-imagined, contrapuntal third movement (at six-and-a-half minutes, the longest of the four), will challenge many with its dense orchestration, high levels of dissonance and austere character, but will yield the patient listener many aural rewards ... his orchestration is imaginative and absolutely assured, and his grasp of contrapuntal writing is masterful." — classical.net (2007)