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Phillip Scott
Fanfare, June 2007

It is not difficult to hear why conductors of the caliber of Alsop and Jansons have championed the work of the young American composer Michael Hersch (b. 1971). He writes for orchestra with a sure hand. His Symphony No. 1 in one movement (1998) is indisputably a promising first essay in the genre; over a 27-minute span, the thematic material is developed with subtlety and imagination.

The piece opens with an arresting texture, dominated by tubular bells. As it progresses, dynamics tend towards one extreme or the other, and often there is a panoramic quality to the music. We could be listening to an extended film score when, at the 15-minute mark, a rugged fugato is abruptly succeeded by a passage of brooding stasis. A feeling of angst pervades the whole work, although a kind of resolution occurs at the close when the tubular bells' C note returns. (The effect is akin to the coming of dawn's rays after a troubled night.) Andrew Druckenbrod's excellent note posits Mahler and Berg as influences, but to me this symphony is not far removed from the desperately tense canvases of Allan Pettersson.

In the other works, all written later, Hersch moves away from triadic-based harmony into tone clusters. As a result, the Second Symphony and the two shorter orchestral pieces sound more like products of the 21st century. Nevertheless, by lurching between “crash and bang” tuttis full of aggressive activity and tense, static pedal notes, Hersch risks becoming predictable and seems to be confining himself to a restrictive emotional range. (One might say the same of Pettersson, but there is a subtle difference: Pettersson's symphonies are about struggle—a journey, albeit a debilitating one, rather than Hersch's comparatively detached panorama of tragedy.) I thought some of the quiet moments of the Second Symphony undistinguished as music per se, justifying their presence only because everyone needed a breather (something I didn't feel with the earlier symphony). It would be unfortunate if a composer with so much skill found himself rewriting the same piece over and over—but that is likely to happen when a young talent is adopted and flooded with big commissions.

The trick for potential listeners is to not play this CD all in one sitting, but to get to know the works separately. At this price, with Alsop and her Bournemouth band at the considerable top of their game, there is nothing to stop you investing in Michael Hersch. His music certainly makes you sit up and take notice, not least the explosive beginning of the Second Symphony, which opens the disc. Naxos's sound engineers cope manfully.

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