American composer Michael Hersch (born in 1971) only discovered classical music and composing in his late teens, but he made up for lost time by establishing a substantial international reputation both as a composer and pianist by his early thirties. The list of his teachers and mentors reads like a Who's-Who of major composers -- Henze, Berio, Rochberg, Corigliano, Harbison, Rouse -- and his works have been performed by numerous prestigious orchestras and ensembles throughout Europe and the Americas. His gargantuan piano piece The Vanishing Pavilions, which lasts over 140 minutes, is based on imagery from the poetry of British writer Christopher Middleton. Its 50 movements, which last from less than a minute to over 10 minutes, consist of evocations of poetic fragments intermingled with about an equal number of intermezzos. It's constructed with a carefully considered architectural design, including a fairly frequent recurrence of movements, which, when heard in their new context, take on an entirely different emotional resonance. This is music of raw, elemental gravity, which proceeds at its own unhurried pace. The music of each movement has an immediate, visceral impact; it sounds like it springs from, and speaks to, some deep, primordial place, unmediated by any system or even the niceties of compositional correctness. This is intensely serious music -- there's no frivolity here -- but even though it's dark, it's never drab. The variety that Hersch's tonal and gestural palette brings to each movement, as well as the music's restless, unpredictable rhythmic energy, commands the listener's attention. The difficulty of the piece is its length. Artistically, it's exactly what it needs to be, but that doesn't mean it meshes very well with the average music lover's ability to stay focused for over two hours on a single work for a solo instrument, which in its totality can seem monolithic. In an ideal world, serious listeners would be able to give undivided attention to such a compelling piece, but in reality, very few people have the aural and psychological discipline to maintain the focus this piece requires. This is a case where following the program notes is immensely helpful, if not essential, for the average listener to fully appreciate the piece. The vividness of Middleton's images helps situate the listening experience, and the indication of which movements are repeated provides useful anchors for staying oriented. Hersch's performance is stunning in its vitality and virtuosity. Vanguard's sound is mostly clear and clean, but it gets a little brittle in the piano's extreme high register. Anyone who loves new music (particularly piano music) that stretches conventional boundaries may well be captivated by The Vanishing Pavilions.
AllMusic Review by Stephen Eddins
Track Listing - Disc 1
The Vanishing Pavilions, for piano~Book I. 4. ...and over that plateau, in a vast and glowing atmosphere
Track Listing - Disc 2