Night Music in the afternoon at the Olympic Music Festival

Night Music – Debussy, Schumann, Fauré, and Chopin : Paul Hersh (piano); Olympic Music Festival, Quilcene, WA, 25.6.2011 (BJ)

It may have seemed perverse on Paul Hersh’s part to program a recital called Night Music for the opening afternoon of this year’s Olympic Music Festival, but the weather cooperated quite convincingly, heavy cloud cover and low temperatures making the occasion feel much like night-time. In any case, the perennial Festival favorite introduced his choices with characteristic eloquence and much insight, and his pairings of pieces – each half of the program proceeding in the order given above – seemed to be wonderfully illuminating.

Hersh played with all his familiar delicacy of touch and fluency of phrase. To start the afternoon, he made a Debussy nocturne from 1892 lead directly into La Soirée dans Grenade, composed eleven years later, pointing the habanera rhythm of the latter piece deliciously, and offering firm bass sonorities to underpin the airy filigree of Debussy’s right-hand part. Similarly evocative was the pairing, after intermission, of a two-hand arrangement of Pour que la nuit soit propice, from the Six épigraphes antiques, with Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut, from the second series of Images. 

Des Abends and In der Nacht constituted the first half’s installment of Schumann, but where that composer was concerned, the real revelation came later with Nachtstücke, compellingly imaginative music that I (in common, probably, with most members of the audience) had never previously heard in live performance. Of the four widely contrasting pieces, the outer ones were typically Schumannesque in their intimacy, while the middle two provided Hersh with the chance to show that he is as liberally endowed with virtuosity as with the more inward virtues.

Fauré, represented by two spacious and finely crafted nocturnes from his Opus 33, stood up well to his juxtaposition with some of the greatest composers that ever wrote for the piano. And at the end of each half, Hersh’s playing fully confirmed Chopin’s status as a master of gigantic proportions, far different from the nervous ninny that romantic gossip somehow makes him out to be. Again, the pieces chosen were both nocturnes, one in C-sharp minor from Op. 27, the other in E-flat major from Op. 55. An ostensibly formulaic turn in the middle of Op.27 was all that was needed to illustrate the composer’s gift of combining decorative eloquence with majestic grandeur, even within the confines of relatively small forms. Hersh’s uncanny ability to seize on just the one note in a phrase that epitomizes its musical message helped to make the E-flat-major Nocturne a suitably eloquent conclusion for the official program. And what could have been a more appropriate encore for such an evening-in-the-afternoon than Clair de lune, from the Suite bergamasque? So the recital ended as it had begun, with Debussy, played with magical poise and flawlessly balanced texture.

Bernard Jacobson