HERSCH Violin Concerto. end stages (Kopatchinskaja)
Michael Hersch’s Violin Concerto (2015) immediately hurls us into a wrenching scene. Trumpet and horn yelp a distressed fanfare as the remaining body of the 13-piece orchestra lurches forwards in convulsive dotted rhythms. A minute or so later the solo violin enters with slashing semitone double-stops, as if struggling to make its raspy voice heard.
This concerto, like much of Hersch’s recent work, can be interpreted as a musical battle of life and death – the composer is a cancer survivor and lost a close friend to the disease in 2009 – although I’d say it’s closer to unsparing reportage than emotional confessional. There are brief passages of fragile lyricism and an occasional glimmer of bittersweet nostalgia, but little respite, as even these quickly evaporate or splinter into violent spasm. Listen, for instance, at 2'12" in the second movement, where the solo violin slowly rocks back and forth (in D major/minor), wheezing like an ancient squeezebox; or to the yearning melody that unexpectedly blossoms at 2'56" in the third movement.
Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who commissioned the concerto, aptly describes it as ‘brutal and vulnerable at the same time’, and her performance conveys that dichotomy with ferocious commitment, aided with equal fearlessness by the International Contemporary Ensemble under Tito Muñoz. The music’s intense physicality and bleak atmosphere make for gripping, if harrowing, listening. What draws me to listen again and again is Hersch’s ability to communicate desperation that somehow never plummets into despair.
Hersch seems to find inspiration in the work of artists with a similar sensibility; the Violin Concerto is connected to a sculpture by Christopher Cairns, for instance, and has verses by Thomas Hardy as its epigraph. With end stages (2016), a set of seven aphoristic miniatures, the stimulus was a series of drawings by artist Kevin Tuttle (handsomely reproduced in the CD booklet). The first four are quite terse and suggest noirish cinematic fragments. Starting with the fifth, however, the emotions become more richly articulated – or, as Aaron Grad puts it in his perceptive booklet notes, the pieces ‘move progressively inward, rather than forward’. Ideally, I think the latter movements would benefit from a rawer sound than the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra give us here, but the performance’s cumulative power is considerable nonetheless.