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

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

Michael Hersch: Complete Works for Solo String Instruments - Volume I
Sonatas Nos. 1 & 2 for Unaccompanied Cello
Label: Vanguard Classics (MCS-CD-104)
Daniel Gaisford, cello
Release Date: 2009


This disc is the first in an ambitious multi-disc survey by Vanguard Classics of Michael Hersch's complete solo works for strings. The recording focuses on the incredibly demanding early sonatas for unaccompanied cello, both of which were written while the composer was still in his twenties. The second installment, which was released in late 2010, features Hersch's music for violin, performed by violinist Miranda Cuckson.


Michael Hersch's Sonata No. 1 for unaccompanied cello is one of his earliest published works, written when he was 23, in 1994. The riveting piece, given a gripping performance by Daniel Gaisford, is included on the first of three discs featuring Mr. Hersch’s solo and chamber music for string instruments, being released by Vanguard Classics. The intensity and communicative power of this sonata, at times an anguished lament, is typical of much of Mr. Hersch’s work, which also includes symphonies, a piano concerto and “The Vanishing Pavilions,” a 2006 work for solo piano lasting more than two hours. The sonata’s profoundly solitary, rhapsodic first movement veers between yearning lyricism and agitated outbursts. The reflective second movement, a showcase for Mr. Gaisford’s rich, penetrating tone and searing musicality, ebbs and flows into the harmonically rich final movement, with its virtuoso challenges and almost brutal intensity. Mr. Gaisford, who, to judge from this recording, deserves greater recognition, also offers a mesmerizing performance of Mr. Hersch’s seven-movement Sonata No. 2, composed in 2000. A similarly dark mood pervades the first movement, which sounds as if several cellos were playing a mournful chorale. Arpeggiated 16th notes in the second movement create multilayered waves of sound, in contrast to the spare, brief third movement, with its urgent six-note motif. The bitter chorale of the opening resurfaces in the terse fourth movement. Mr. Gaisford plays with probing commitment in the passionate fifth movement, a whirlwind of octave leaps and rapidly ascending figurations. The stark staccato motif of the third movement is reprised in the sixth. A poignant chorale pierces the arching finale, which fades to a whisper on a low G.
— The New York Times

"I first became acquainted with Michael Hersch’s music through his monumental solo piano work The Vanishing Pavilions. The pieces recorded here adjust Hersch’s large and large-hearted soundworld to the somewhat more intimate and introverted genre of the unaccompanied sonata for cello. The genre has a long and distinguished history, characterized by big works that show off the expressive range of the instrument (and the player) as well as the virtuosic possibilities almost inherent in solo string playing. Hersch is solidly in that tradition here, with pieces that probe the nature of cello playing in the context of the composer’s very personal post 20th-century neo-modernism. The music is characterized by meditative lyricism or mysticism, punctuated by aggressively angular and rhythmically biting phrases. Daniel Gaisford plays these difficult (in every sense of the word) and supremely rewarding pieces with seemingly limitless technique and a musical personality as strong as Hersch’s. Their collaboration makes for an exciting and provocative musical experience."

(four stars) "... an intricately constructed world with vast emotional scope."
— The Philadelphia Inquirer