Composer Michael Hersch, described by London’s Financial Times as “one of the most fertile musical minds to emerge in the U.S. over the past generation,” has just released the first in a three-disc survey of his music for solo string instruments on the Vanguard Classics label. The first disc in the series features cellist Daniel Gaisford, an artist dedicated to Hersch’s music, who performs the composer’s demanding Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 for Unaccompanied Cello. Next in the series will be an album of violin works played by Miranda Cuckson, to be released in 2010, and the third and final installment will comprise music for viola and double bass. The present cello title is already Vanguard’s fourth recording of Hersch’s works, which is a rare honor for so young a composer. His second disc for the label, on which he performed his own music alongside works by Josquin des Pres, Wolfgang Rihm, and Morton Feldman, was selected by both the Washington Post and Newsday as among the most important recordings of 2004-5.
Written over a 15-year period, the works for solo strings make up a significant yet relatively unknown portion of the composer’s output. The new recording, “Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2 for Unaccompanied Cello”, focuses on two large-scale early works that Hersch composed while still in his 20s. “Listening to a work for unaccompanied violin or cello can feel a little bit like eavesdropping,” states the opening line of notes accompanying the new disc, but the writer continues: “Hersch’s two sonatas for solo cello suggest a highly confidential form of communion between player and instrument, although both turn out to be potently communicative in a much broader sense, too.”
After a recital of the two cello sonatas, the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote, “The cello was like an orchestra unto itself – it rants, pants, screams, and cowers – particularly as played by the remarkable Daniel Gaisford, who may be America’s greatest unknown cellist.” A review in the New York Times on the first sonata's premiere noted Hersch's “extraordinarily communicative music,” and continues: “Mr. Hersch’s music speaks for itself eloquently. ... [The first] Sonata for Unaccompanied Cello [is] an arching 35-minute work that amply repays the considerable demands it makes on a cellist’s technique and interpretive imagination. Daniel Gaisford’s spectacular performance was particularly gripping in the work’s extroverted finale.”
Michael Hersch’s most recent recording, a two-CD boxed set also on Vanguard Classics, is the 142-minute The Vanishing Pavilions for solo piano, a work the composer-pianist plays from memory in performance. Reviewing the premiere, the Philadelphia Inquirer noted that Hersch “conjured volcanic gestures from the piano with astonishing virtuosity. The evening felt downright historic.” Meanwhile a single article in the New Criterion included reviews both of this piano recording and of Gaisford’s performance of the second cello sonata at New York’s BargeMusic:
“Michael Hersch is an extraordinary composer... . Recently, his piano work The Vanishing Pavilions came out on disc. This is a visionary, sometimes apocalyptic, barely fathomable work lasting almost two and a half hours. He has written two sonatas for unaccompanied cello – both long, both visionary... . The Sonata No. 2...is dark, demanding, world-encompassing. Words are always poor in describing music, and they seem especially so in describing Hersch’s. In Daniel Gaisford, Hersch has found an ideal interpreter – an ideal exponent. Gaisford is an American cellist a few years older than Hersch, and not well-known. Why this is so is a mystery – and it teaches us something about the music business. When I first heard Gaisford in Philadelphia, about a year ago, I was stunned: how could there be so good a cellist I had never heard, or even heard of? Gaisford has a formidable technique and a formidable mind. He can make a hundred sounds: fat, thin, spiky, lyrical, rich, sickly, piercing, warm. And Hersch’s sonatas call for a great many of them.”