90 Minutes of Powerful, Bosch-Like Images

United StatesUnited States Hersch: Carolyn Huebl (violin), Mark Wait (piano), Crane Arts and the Icebox Project Space, Philadelphia, 20.11.2016. (BJ)

Michael Hersch – Zwischen Leben und Tod – 22 Pieces After Images by Peter Weiss

At least in the English-speaking world, Peter Weiss (born near Berlin 1916, died in Stockholm in 1982) is most widely known for his play about Jean-Paul Marat and the Marquis de Sade – Marat/Sade for short – which brought him international fame when it was premiered in 1964. He was also, however, a prolific creator of paintings and other visual images, of a stylistic variety with affinities ranging from Pieter Bruegel and Hieronymus Bosch to such more recent figures as Edvard Munch and George Grosz.

The 22 images that stand as inspiration for Michael Hersch’s Between Life and Death are indeed widely varied in style, scale, and mood. Some present Bosch-like scenes of multifarious scope; others, at an opposite extreme, depict almost bare, seemingly ghostly figures or faces that may look innocuous but evoke deeply disquieting depths of suggestion, implication, and threat.

Born in 1971 in Washington, DC, Hersch has observed of Weiss’s visual production, “Though each of these paintings is quite different, below the surface similar tensions roil.” And one of the most striking features of this roughly 90-minute composition for violin and piano is that, while its 22 movements correspond to images of the wildest disparity, the music is remarkably consistent in style, capturing the expressive unity that underlies Weiss’s heterogeneous surfaces. Whereas Stravinsky was in the habit of setting his materials in blunt juxtaposition – whether between one of his movements and the next or within individual movements – 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 building blocks.

“Consistent in style,” I have said – but characteristic of this remarkably original composer in its embrace of the most uninhibited dynamic extremes. A quiet passage will often be suddenly torn apart by instrumental explosions of the utmost violence. Behind some of the quieter and slower stretches of music, the spirit of Morton Feldman may be felt to lurk, but the treatment is totally individual: no one but Hersch could have written Zwischen Leben und Tod.

Given the context, smiling lyricism is not to be expected in these arduous explorations. But the sheer concentration of the whole makes an irresistibly powerful impact, which, in the almost clinically bare environment of the originally industrial building occupied by Crane Arts, benefitted from unmistakably dedicated and accomplished playing by Carolyn Huebl and Mark Wait.

As always, hearing a new-ish (2013) work by Michael Hersch leaves me waiting impatiently for the next one. This is one of the most gifted composers writing today.

Bernard Jacobson

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