Daniel Gaisford

Michael Hersch: Sonatas for Unaccompanied Cello Nos. 1 & 2

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Because solo cello music is fairly limited in its tonal palette and severely exposed in its textures, it requires a great deal of melodic and harmonic invention to compose full-length works for it. There is only a handful of major compositions for the instrument -- counting J.S. Bach's six unaccompanied cello suites, Zoltán Kodály's sonata, and the three suites by Benjamin Britten as supreme achievements of the genre -- so Michael Hersch showed considerable courage in composing his Sonatas No. 1 and No. 2 for unaccompanied cello, mainly because he inevitably invites comparisons to his predecessors. Fortunately for his reputation, and for his listeners' benefit, Hersch is a highly creative composer who clearly understands what can be technically accomplished with the cello, and understands that its music has to encompass both lyrical and the virtuosic aspects to sustain interest. The Sonata No. 1 (1994) is heavily weighted up front with two slow movements, and only its third movement can be considered a bravura piece; yet this sonata follows a steady continuum of expression that moves from brooding reverie through passionate lyricism to intense activity, and the mostly linear writing of the first two movements serves as a perfect foil for the multi-stops and brusque bowing of the third. The Sonata No. 2 (2000) is projected over seven movements of varying length, and the variety of expressions is somewhat greater than in the earlier work, as are the techniques deployed, though it is largely in the slow tempo range. While the Sonata No. 1 is, for the most part, smoothly bowed, the Sonata No. 2 displays more nuances in the bowing, and rougher timbres and grittier effects break up the placid melodic flow. What may be missed in Hersch's style is any lightness of mood, to say nothing of humor or gaiety: this is a profoundly earnest composer, and everything in Hersch's expression conveys the deepest gravitas. Cellist Daniel Gaisford must feel sympathy with this brooding quality, for his playing is intensely committed in both performances, and he presents the music with austere calm, penetrating insight, and the utmost seriousness. Listeners will surely find that these sonatas are worthwhile additions to the cello's small repertoire, but because of their rather consistent mood and narrow emotional range, they will be of interest mostly to aficionados of contemplative music.

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