December 07, 2006


Ives: String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2; Scherzo. Blair String Quartet. Naxos. $8.99.

Michael Hersch: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2; Fracta; Arraché. Marin Alsop conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Naxos. $8.99.

     It would be useful to have an “Ives scale” to determine just how forward-looking an American composer is.  There never was one who looked further forward than Charles Ives – and he did so by initially looking backwards and sideways, deciding he did not like what he saw, and then creating a musical language so personal that some of his works, nearly 100 years after their composition, still sound startlingly modern.  Ives’ two string quartets show, in microcosm, where he came from and where he went.  The first, subtitled “From the Salvation Army” and written in 1896, is tonal and gorgeous and very much of the late 19th century.  It uses and substantially modifies the gospel and revival tunes that Ives loved all his life, and its Salvation Army reference also reflects a frequent Ives interest (one of his best songs is called “General William Booth Enters into Heaven” – Booth being the founder of the Salvation Army).  The Blair String Quartet plays this piece respectfully and emotionally, with appropriately warm and rich tone.

     Ives had undergone a musical transformation by the time he returned to the string-quartet medium, and his Quartet No. 2 (1911-1913) is barely recognizable as being by the same composer.  It partakes of the philosophical concerns that often motivated Ives’ later works – here, the composer said, four men discuss, fight, argue, then make up and walk to a mountaintop to observe and appreciate the view.  The specifics are not apparent in the music, but the rhythmic complexities, dissonances and polytonality make this work sound thoroughly modern, while the final movement (“The Call of the Mountains”) presents a panorama of vast beauty in a language that Ives developed only in the years after writing his first quartet.  The Blair String Quartet is as equal to this work’s challenges and stridencies as to the earlier work’s flow and harmonies.  A brief Scherzo, which plays with hymn and folk-song tunes and shows Ives in a light mood, separates the two longer works on this Naxos CD.

     Very, very few of today’s composers would rate high on the Ives scale, but Michael Hersch, born in 1971, would be one of them.  The four world premiere recordings conducted by Marin Alsop and beautifully played by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra are revelatory of a highly talented composer who seems, likes Ives, to have formed a strong base and to be moving well beyond it within just a few years.  Hersch’s Symphony No. 1 (1998) essentially details a musical journey that progresses from a dissonant ninth at the opening to a consonant octave at the end, with reminiscences of Mahler (especially at the start), Shostakovich (in a funereal section with spare-sounding strings), and even Berlioz (the “March to the Scaffold” from Symphonie Fantastique).  This is no more a derivative work than is Ives’ First Quartet, but it is clearly one in which the composer is absorbing earlier influences and reworking them, much as Ives did.  This one-movement, 27-minute symphony is episodic, and that fits Alsop’s conducting style well: she is most at home when focusing on the details of a work, less effective when searching for a broad and overarching flow.  Alsop and Hersch go together very well indeed.

     By the time he wrote his second symphony in 2001, Hersch had found his own language.  This piece is one-third shorter than the first symphony and divided into four movements, for reasons that are not necessarily obvious to the listener.  The intense, propulsive percussion and sharp contrasts between piano and forte occasionally sound like the “space music” of György Ligeti, but more often sound like nothing but Hersch.  By the third movement, when an actual string theme appears, Hersch – who does not do lyricism very well – has developed an effective contrast between the brash (in the form of percussion and brass exclamations) and the flowing.  This symphony is a significant step beyond the earlier one.

     The two shorter works on this CD are even newer than the second symphony.  “Fracta,” from 2002, is an interesting (if not terribly significant) recomposition of an earlier work for clarinet and cello, which in turn tried to evoke a poem by Friedrich Hölderlin.  Hersch here tries to replicate his own reactions to a performance of the duet; whether he succeeds, only he can say.  As for “Arraché” (French for “torn from”), it was written in 2004 in response to numerous reports of hostage-taking and hostage-killing in Iraq.  It uses no percussion – unusual for a Hersch work – but treats the winds and brass percussively.  Anguished sonorities and skittering strings provoke (or reflect) an emotional response to the horrors of war, until a dirgelike ending and fadeout.  The specific reasons for the creation of this composition may not be long remembered.  But the work itself is likely to have staying power as a general expression of psychological disturbance.  Hersch, like Ives, has incorporated the past and is now determinedly moving it into the future.

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