Hersch and Diamond Premieres, plus Chihuly’s “Bluebeard”

United StatesUnited States Hersch (15.5), Diamond (17.5) and Bartók: Soloists, Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz (conductor), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 15 & 17.5.2012 (BJ)

When a composer has written a solo piano work lasting nearly an hour and a half, and a work for the Brahmsian-sounding combination of cello and horn with a similar duration, it is a safe bet that he cannot be accused of a taste for compromise. Such a composer, the 40-year-old Michael Hersch, contributed the work for piano and orchestra that had its world premiere at the first of these two concerts.

Actually, Along the Ravines, as it is titled, plays for a mere 35 minutes or so. But though his longer efforts still fall short of the time-scale explored in the 20th century by the Englishman (yes, he was English!) Khaikosru Sorabji, with his four-hour-long Opus clavicembalisticum, and the American Morton Feldman, whose Second String Quartet approaches the six-hour mark, Hersch’s uncompromisingly granitic style of writing makes even those formidable fellow-mavericks sound almost timidly traditionalistic.

Feldman is famous—or notorious—above all else for his dedication to musical fabrics that flirt on the very edge of inaudibility. One may suspect with him, as with persons whose manner of speech also tends toward constant pianissimo, that a substantial component of rage lies hidden beneath the soft-spoken surface. By contrast, if Hersch harbors rage, he has no hesitation in giving it full triple-forte voice. Indeed, the piano’s first entry, a few minutes into this boldly designed work, carries not only that dynamic marking but also the instruction: “terrifying, cataclysmic.” So it certainly sounded under the hands of the soloist in this magnificent performance, the gifted Israeli pianist Shai Wosner. Under Schwarz’s authoritative baton the orchestra, whose part is no less challenging, also played superbly.

This is a composer much given to designing his works as series of short movements. There are eleven such movements in his string Octet, eleven again in his Milosz Fragments for piano, and seven (though not quite as short) in his substantial and impressive Sonata No. 2 for Unaccompanied Cello, recorded on the Vanguard Classics label. But if those facts seem to suggest a close affinity between Hersch and Stravinsky, appearances in this case, as so often in the elusive art of music, are deceptive. The crucial difference between Hersch’s way of assembling his formal building blocks and the method of his famous predecessor is that whereas Stravinsky, whether between one movement and the next or within individual movements, was in the habit of setting his materials in blunt juxtaposition, for Hersch the point is clearly to project an arc, often a very broad and always a highly self-consistent one, uniting and reconciling his multiplicity of seemingly disjunct thematic and textural units.

Along the Ravines is laid out in ten movements. True to his refreshing penchant for the outer boundaries of expression, Hersch frequently sets the upper end of the dynamic gamut in vivid contrast with some equally extreme quiet passages. Such methods clearly echo what he calls the “accompanying text” to the work, a series of quotations from the subtly yet forcefully evocative writings of the great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert. The result, it need hardly be said, is by no means easy listening, but I find it profoundly rewarding and no end fascinating.

I wish I could say the same for the six arias from David Diamond’s opera The Noblest Game that occupied the corresponding world-premiere spot on the second program. Diamond’s music was and remains one of Gerard Schwarz’s keenest enthusiasms, but, a few attractive works notwithstanding, this is not an enthusiasm I can share. The opera as a whole (whose librettist, by the way, as the program book might surely have deigned to inform us, was Katie Louchheim) had an unhappy performance—or rather non-performance—history, as a result of which Diamond never completed the orchestration.

The six arias in question, however, were fully scored. But neither their texts, which abound in otiose observations such as “Life is what we are here for” and pretentious declarations such as “my soul longs for eternal sleep,” nor the music, which except for a few likeable moments of lyricism presents a stupefying blend of the grandiose with the banal, made me wish that more of the opera was available to be heard. Schwarz led the rather splashy score with characteristic dedication, and I can only express my sympathy for the talented young soprano Jennifer Zetlan for having had to yell her way through much of the arias’ ungrateful vocal writing.

The second half of both concerts was devoted to repeated hearings of Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, in the version that the orchestra originally presented five years ago in the course of a festival titled “Bridging the 48th Parallel: Music of Central Europe.” The stunning visual aspect of this “concert-staged” production was the monumental set of six glass artworks created by Seattle-based Dale Chihuly, the orchestra’s “Artist in Association,” and surely the world’s most widely celebrated glass artist. Matching Béla Balázs’s libretto—a classic symbolist text—Chihuly’s tableaux, revealed one by one as Judith opens the seven doors in Bluebeard’s castle, are symbolic rather than literal representations of what lies beyond them, whether in the environs of the castle itself, or, more pertinently, in Bluebeard’s tortured mind.

Helen M. Szablya, Hungary’s Honorary Consul General for Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, delivered the work’s Hungarian prologue crisply, and more drily than Charles Simonyi in his highly dramatic declamation back in 2007. Also new to this year’s performances was mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby, who, replacing Sally Burgess in the part of Judith, sang it with impressive richness and clarity. The Bluebeard, once again, was Charles Robert Austin, whose musical and dramatic command of the role is complete and intensely moving, and Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony realized Bartók’s superbly imaginative score to equally compelling effect.

Bernard Jacobson