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Sonata No. 1 for Unaccompanied Cello (1994)
Sonata No. 2 for Unaccompanied Cello (2000)

Program Note by Andrew Farach-Colton

"Vox clamantis in deserto” --Isaiah 40:3

Listening to a work for unaccompanied violin or cello can feel a little bit like eavesdropping. This may be partly because the relationship between a player and instrument is such an intimate one, although surely the music itself is also a factor. Much of the repertory for solo cello, for instance – from Sainte-Colombe and Bach to Kodaly and Britten – seems to have been intended for solitary contemplation, or even self-induced catharsis, rather than for public display.

Certainly, Michael 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. A quick glance at a few of the expressive markings peppered throughout the scores gives an indication of just how high Hersch has set the emotional stakes: “haunting, grieving”; “violente (violent)”; “with great weight and power”; “with a sense of terror”. Like so much of Hersch’s work, in fact, these sonatas come across as musical manifestations of life-or-death struggles – and a significant portion of their power is derived from the highly personal nature of the medium. The sight and sound of 100 or more musicians playing at full strength might knock you sideways, but it’s at essence a communal form of expression, and (as the saying goes) there’s safety in numbers. By contrast, a solitary cellist playing his or her heart out evokes a more ancient, archetypal image of loneliness – one that harks back at least as far as the New Testament and Isaiah’s “voice of one crying in the wilderness.”

The intensity and immensity of Hersch’s musical vision demands extraordinary emotional largesse buttressed by a virtuoso technique and huge reserves of stamina. There is however nothing remotely flashy or flamboyant about these sonatas; the virtuosity required is purely transcendental. In the case of the cello, an instrument normally relegated to a single melodic line in an ensemble must now alone command a listener’s full and unwavering attention. What’s presented must come across as wholly complete – a world unto itself.

Hersch has said that he does not approach the writing of an unaccompanied work as a solo at all, but rather as an ensemble, while still considering the instrument on its own terms. Many of the methods Hersch employs – for example: extensive double stopping (bowing two lines simultaneously); rapid, shifting arpeggiation (successively playing through the individual notes of a series of chords by either moving from the top note to the bottom or vice versa); and alternating between two streams of notes that are separated far enough (high voice and low voice) to create a conversational effect – are not his invention. It’s how he adapts these devices that makes them so gripping, as well as so daunting for the performer. There are indeed passages where it’s obvious that the cellist’s prowess is being severely tested: most notably in the ruthless final movement of the First Sonata, and nearly the entirety of the Second Sonata’s extensive fifth movement. There are other pages that are terse, or where the texture seems uncomplicated, and gaping silences play a crucial role in both sonatas. Even in these, however, issues of bow control and intonation are potential minefields. In addition, there remains the overarching challenge of establishing, sustaining, and developing the music’s heightened emotional states. So, really, none of it – including the silences, it seems – is easy to play.

Nor do these sonatas make for easy listening. Hersch’s music is rarely sweet and never light-hearted or merely pretty. Its beauty emanates from its absolute sincerity and the acute, unblinking focus on the truths and visions that Hersch reveals to us.

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The Sonata No. 1 for unaccompanied cello is among Michael Hersch’s earliest published works. He was 23 and still a student when he completed the score in 1994. This may seem astounding given that the music already speaks recognizably in his mature voice, and that the sizable score is held together so expertly. Indeed, the first movement alone is vast, taking nearly a quarter-hour in performance.

The Sonata begins in fits and starts. The initial phrase might be the opening of a hymn tune, but after a brief silence, a gnawing unease sets in. Yearning fragments of phrases appear and disappear; some are quite lyrical, but the silences leave them unfulfilled. Suddenly, as if in frustration, there’s an agitated outburst. For several minutes, lyricism, anguish, and vexation tumble spasmodically, creating a kaleidoscope of emotional lability, as Hersch gradually ratchets up the sense of urgency. Even the pauses become more intense.

Then, almost halfway through the movement, the silences cease entirely. It’s a dramatic moment. After taking a long, deep breath, the cello digs into its lowest note at full volume (Hersch directs the performer to play “with greatest intensity throughout”), unleashing a torrent of sound and fury. The music thrashes violently. Only after an impassioned lyrical exhortation – a high-lying, keening phrase does the tension slacken slightly. But this respite is merely the trough between two towering waves of despair. Again, Hersch tightens the screws. And, again, the crest is marked by  a blistering lament played in the cello’s highest register. But the phrase soon descends to the depths for a hushed, grim codetta.

Grave is the marking for the second movement, and it’s an apt description. If the sonata began with an air of ambiguity, there is none here. The cello ruminates woefully, taking various thematic motives from the previous movement as if it were picking them up to examine them, searching for something. The music ebbs and flows, its peaks capped by resonantly lyrical echoes of the first movement’s struggles. Dark pools of silence dot the landscape, but they are not disruptive; instead, they provide opportunities for reflection.

The finale, marked Allegro con fuoco (“with fire”), is set primarily in 6/8 meter, which some may take as a reference to the gigues that conclude each of Bach’s six unaccompanied suites. In truth, the movement’s ferocity makes it more like a tarantella, an impression amplified by the preponderance of chattering repeated notes in its primary theme. Yet the finale’s most intriguing aspect is not how it looks back so much as how it sees ahead, for its climax is a two-voiced dirge that will reappear – arguably with even greater emotional power – in the Sonata No. 2. Here, its function is to create tension, like the slow yet steady drawing back of a bowstring by a master archer. The arrow that’s eventually released with devastating force is a brief, brusque, and brutal coda.

When Hersch completed his Sonata No. 2 in 2000, the First Sonata, apart from a conservatory performance, had yet to be performed publicly. The official premiere finally took place in 2001, seven years after its completion, when cellist Daniel Gaisford played it at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. In 2003, Gaisford gave the first performance of the Sonata No. 2 (which is dedicated to him) in Rome at the Romaeuropa Festival, and he recorded it the following year for Vanguard Classics.

An ingenious seven-movement structure provides the Sonata No. 2 with balance and cohesion through asymmetry – a technical achievement that was surely an important stepping stone towards the staggering organizational complexity of The Vanishing Pavilions, Hersch’s massive, 50-movement solo piano cycle, completed in 2005. Movements I, IV and VII of the Sonata are complementary; there are crucial thematic connections among them, though each has a distinct dramatic shape that befits its structural placement. Movements III and VI are identical, succinct, and motivically single-minded to the point of obsessiveness; one might describe them as a pair of unnerving intermezzi. Movement II is étude-like in the character and consistency of its figuration. Movement V is the sonata’s dramatic crux.

What Hersch means when he says he writes for the cello as an “ensemble” rather than as a solo instrument (as mentioned above) is clearly evident in Movement I of the Sonata No. 2, which is composed as a duet from start to finish. Except for a few bars in the movement’s center, the two voices move together, like monks intoning a threnody, and the intervals they chant are often achingly dissonant or empty sounding, like hollowed-out chords. These intervals are the building blocks for the entire work; almost all of what follows is derived from the sonorities heard in the first seven measures.

There are three distinct yet closely-interrelated sections. The first has the character of a stark chorale; it’s deliberate and grieving. Then, after an extended silence, there is greater movement, and for nearly a dozen measures the two “voices” become independent. Another silence, and they realign to march in grim, steady quarter notes (Hersch marks this “drone like” in the score). A brief return to the opening chorale-like music provides a decisively inconclusive conclusion.

Movement II flows in an almost unbroken stream of arpeggiated 16th-notes, creating an ornate pattern of lapping waves. These waves outline an harmonic progression that may sound appealingly opulent after the preceding movement’s relative austerity. But the dissonances persevere as a kind of underlying throbbing pain, and of the 103 “waves” that make up the movement, all but ten are rigidly anchored to the cello’s low C. When the bass note does break away (which happens only twice) it’s merely up a short step to D before being quickly yanked back.

Movements III and VI – those unnerving, identical intermezzi – wreak havoc with the notion of predictability. A short, nervous, six-note motive is heard then repeated 12 times with slight but consequential variations. Each iteration is separated by a silence, although these are uneven in duration, so one has some expectation of what will come next but is never quite sure.

Movement IV commences with the grim, marching chant that formed the third part of Movement I, and ends with a variation on the sonata’s introductory chorale.

The dénouement is Movement V. Two tiny explosions at the beginning give a hint that something’s afoot. And, indeed, the overarching lyricism of its extensive, grave first part is mitigated by sudden outbursts and cavernous silences. A new figure appears, its conspicuous two-octave leap fueling a surge of simmering passion. The fire ignites with a doggedly ascending phrase that’s remarkably similar to the one that sparked the furious second half of the First Sonata’s opening movement. Rapidly, the flames spread and the mood becomes increasingly desperate. Shattered motives from previous movements begin to appear. A return of the arpeggiated figuration from Movement II provides a momentary reprieve, but soon the flames rise again, consuming everything in their path. The fire only dies out when there’s nothing left for it to consume.

The reprise of Movement III here, coming immediately after such a destructive maelstrom, is especially unsettling, and Movement VII offers no comfort. We are back in the same atmosphere with which the sonata started, but something’s different. The phrases in Movement I were long-breathed; here they’re fragmentary. A sudden recollection of the explosive, restless opening of Movement V precipitates a mournful, disoriented chorale. But this, too, breaks off, leaving just a single, soft note, a low G. There’s a violent shudder, then the G takes a slow, final breath and dies away.

Andrew Farach-Colton is a regular contributer to Gramophone, BBC Music Magazine, Opera News, and The Strad.  His essays and analytical notes have appeared in the program books of the New York Philharmonic, BBC Proms, and the San Francisco Opera, as well as in CD booklets of Decca and Harmonia Mundi recordings.