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Hersch: The Vanishing Pavilions / Michael Hersch

Release Date: 10/09/2007 
Label:  Musical Concepts   Catalog #: 101   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Michael Hersch
Performer:  Michael Hersch
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

HERSCH The Vanishing Pavilions Michael Hersch (pn) MUSICAL CONCEPTS 101 (2 CDs: 142:20)

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 the interest from first to last (one of my hearings of this piece was straight through, and I can report that it was a most rewarding experience). The technical demands are vast. Composers such as Xenakis, Finnissy, and Boucourechliev ( Read more style="font-style:italic">Archipels , in particular) spring to mind. The Vanishing Pavilions is divided into two books, which neatly take up a disc each.

Hirsch (b. 1971) was awarded first prize in the American Composers Awards in 1996, aged only 26. He has, in fact, been the recipient of a barrelful of prizes and commissions. The generating seed for The Vanishing Pavilions was the poetry of Christopher Middleton (b. 1926), and the booklet notes suggest that Hersch’s piece be considered “a shattered song cycle without words.” There are some 50 movements, approximately half of which are responses to poetic images by Middleton.

Moments of stasis are gratefully received. A case in point is the stark “Intermezzo (D)” of the first Book, a dark modernist chorale. Other movements take this sort of stasis and contrast it with violent outbursts, while one of the longest movements of Book 1, the 14th, is a telling funeral march that transforms into exploratory canons, bookended by a repeated intermezzo.

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. The deathly images of the chosen poetry act as visceral reminders of our own mortality. The repetition of movements, either verbatim, altered, or entirely re-examined, is a feature of Hersch’s structural play, framing large statements or simply altering our viewpoints. It all leads to the climactic 48th movement, a vast Mahlerian procession. The final two movements act as a sort of leave-taking, the simple mechanics of the final statement—36 chords slowly heading towards the extreme upper end of the keyboard’s range—being all the more effective for that simplicity, that openness.

The recording itself (made in the Peabody Institute in December 2006) has no problems with the dynamic range, nor Hirsch’s variety of touch. Andrew Farach-Colton provides detailed notes that lead the listener by the hand though Hersch’s elaborate maze. The only small fly in the ointment is that the movement numbers are not given in the track listing for Book II, but the booklet annotations themselves carry on the movement numbering sequentially. There is no cross-referencing between the two—but then again, a little light math never hurt anybody.

I have yet to hear the Naxos recording of Hersch’s first two symphonies ( Fanfare 30:5), but on the strength and integrity of the music presented here, it will not be long before I do.

FANFARE: Colin Clarke
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Works on This Recording

The Vanishing Pavilions by Michael Hersch
Performer:  Michael Hersch (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 2006; USA 

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