Notes and Editorial Reviews
HERSCH Images from a closed ward • Blair Str Qrt • INNOVA 884 (42:13)
Right off the bat, I was prepared to like this CD, as I love the string quartet medium. Besides, the headnote was just about the quickest I’ve had to do in quite some time. If those things weren’t enough, the title seemed to have an allusion to Pictures at an Exhibition, causing me to become almost giddy with anticipation. The sounds that greeted my ears upon my putting the disc into my player did not
disappoint me, but also convinced me that this aural experience would be quite different from anything that I’d heard before.
Since Michael Hersch is not a composer whose music I’d previously encountered, it is certainly possible that he is new to you as well. Born in 1971 in Washington, D.C., Hersch engaged in studies at the Peabody Conservatory under Moshe Cotel, and undertook further studies at the Moscow Conservatory. He first gained attention at the age of 25 when he was awarded First Prize in the Concordia American Composers Awards, a recognition that led to a performance of his Elegy in Alice Tully Hall by Marin Alsop. Since then, his music has been widely performed by the major orchestras of Cleveland, Saint Louis, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas, Cincinnati, Seattle, and Oregon, among others. Presently, he is head of the Department of Composition at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University.
Images from a Closed Ward is a string quartet in 13 movements, all but one of which are no more than a few minutes in duration. My assumption about its connection with the art world was on target: In this case, the piece had its genesis when the composer encountered the etchings of American artist Michael Mazur (1935–2009), created to accompany Robert Pinsky’s new translation of Dante’s Inferno. These artworks were on display in Rome during the time that the 29-year-old Hersch was there as a Rome Prize Fellow. Following this encounter, the composer became acquainted with the artist himself, and the latter even wrote the notes and provided artwork for Hersch’s first CD release. Mazur’s comments in describing the style of this innovative composer are worth quoting: “I am struck by what might constitute an analogy with painting and with my own work in particular. There is, of course, the overwhelming sense of ‘sadness,’ which is better than ‘doom.’ In fact, the ‘abyss’ in its finality is easy to portray: a rich black says it all....Dante looked into the abyss but primarily found sadness there. Sadness is a much more complicated and, therefore, interesting human condition.”
The “closed ward” referred to in the title of Hersch’s work, was inspired by Mazur’s etchings, not of hell as one might assume, but of another form of confinement, that of a mental ward. Such facilities can certainly evoke images of an abyss all of their own, and one of these etchings, a depiction of two pathetic figures from the Rhode Island mental asylum, the composer keeps over his writing desk. It is consequently no surprise to encounter musical images of such things as blackness, depression, and hopelessness in this music. The opening movement of this work begins with sustained complex and mysterious sonorities, and the entire quartet is played senza vibrato, an effect not often heard in string quartet writing. This serves to replace the intrinsic warm sound of four string players with a sterile and bleak sonority. The opening of the quartet, in fact, sounds amazingly reminiscent of the sound of an accordion. This is no criticism in any way, but rather indicative of my amazement that such sounds can come from a string quartet. The dissonant sonorities are by no means unrelenting: Hersch utilizes a refreshing, bracing, and innovative admixture of dissonance and consonance.
Tempos in this work are uniformly slow, ranging from glacial to leisurely, with contrast achieved primarily through changes in texture. The second movement, for instance, is replete with double stops in all instruments, while the third features a plaintive line in the violin and viola accompanied by a walking pizzicato in the cello. There is a palpable undulation throughout this movement, with occasional interjections of triadic harmony. Density of texture reaches a zenith in the fourth movement, which is a series of tone clusters in various spacings and registers. It’s really frightening music.
Movement eight is almost entirely pizzicato, with many of the complex chords rooted on the low C of the cello, a note which (unlike most plucked notes on stringed instruments) will resonate for a bit of time. The effect is aurally stunning. The 11th movement is both the most vigorous and the longest of the entire quartet. The activity seems to belie the notes’ assurance that none of the movements exceeds a tempo of more than 66 beats per minute. There is also a bit more contrapuntal activity in this movement than in the others, which are largely homophonic.
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. If you heeded my advice to acquire the CDs of the music of Jean-Paul Dessy (way back in 34:5), and liked them, this CD will also be very much to your taste. The Blair String Quartet plays with commendable intonation and flair, and produces an amazing array of colors. Recorded sound is quite forward, most conducive to bringing across the effect of the work. Highly recommended for the adventurous.
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