* Symphony No. 2 (2001)
* Fracta (2002)
* Symphony No. 1 (1998)
* Arrache (2004)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
Naxos 8.559281 Total time: 64:21
Summary for the Busy Executive: Donny Downer.
Still comfortably in his thirties, American composer Michael Hersch has
enjoyed astounding success in Europe, particularly in England and in
Germany. All the more remarkable, he came to an interest in classical
music only in his late teens. From there, he went on to study composition
at Peabody. His music displays great technique and great promise as
well, although I think he has yet to really hit his stride. When he
does, watch out.
The CD gives you the opportunity to see some of Hersch's development
over a six-year span. The First Symphony typifies the work of a young
man, looking for an individual voice. The symphony itself, in one long
movement, speaks in the accents of late Mahler and, here and there, of
the Shostakovich of the Tenth Symphony. Consequently, one can predict
a little too easily where it will go at any particular moment. Most of
it comes across as a Mahler funeral march -- very lugubrious, very
intense. It also occasionally goes a little slack, something that
Mahler's marches don't do. The style depends on keeping up the intensity
of the writing (and the playing). However, the Symphony No. 2, in four
continuous movements, drops the obvious Mahler connections, all to the
good. Mahler comes to influence Hersch in the way he influences someone
like Britten or Arnold: a habit of mind, a way of viewing the world,
rather than a bit of Rich-Little mimicry. The composer here rigorously
explores the contrapuntal and melodic implications of a certain harmony.
He also writes an intense, dramatic piece. Most important, Hersch appears
to have found part of his own musical landscape. I would stress that
it's only a part. I hope more will come. Indeed, all the scores on the
CD come down to emotionally (that is, technical considerations aside)
pretty much the same thing -- bleakness and existential gloom. Mahler
famously declared the symphony to be "a world." My criterion may not be
all that fair, but I really want to sense a rounded personality behind
the notes. After all, Debussy isn't all moonbeams and perfumed breezes.
Mahler does more than merely yearn for God. At this point -- and I
stress it's still early days yet in his career -- Hersch mostly kvetches.
Fracta, a portrait of winter that echoes the winter of the soul, despite
a terrific opening (which evokes a "clattering" weathervane), pushes
this mood to an extreme. For me, it succeeds the least of the works on
the CD. On the other hand, Arrache, the most recent score, gives me the
most hope since I think it easily the best work on the program and willing
to sing something other than a dirge. It explodes into a burn-the-barn-down
fugue -- according to the liner notes, a quadruple fugue, if you please,
although it roars by at such a clip, I can't distinguish all the strands.
Doesn't matter. It gets the heart pumping.
Marin Alsop, who has made it her business to give Hersch's work a good
hearing, does well here. Indeed, I wouldn't have guessed she had this
kind of music in her. She untangles most of the knots (Hersch's textures
seem to vacillate between spare and thick -- Jack Sprat and his wife)
and finds the shape of each score.
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