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Recordings, 1/25/04

Sunday, January 25, 2004

Records are rated on a scale of one (poor) to four (excellent) stars.


Michael Hersch: Chamber Music; Berlin Philharmonic, et al. Vanguard Classics.
Finally in this debut disc, the world outside of a few cities is able to be immersed in the unsettling yet pristine realm of composer Michael Hersch. Few American composers of his age (now in his 30s) have been as feted by prestigious awards as he. But even in cities such as Pittsburgh, which has heard much of his output through the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and conductor Mariss Jansons' extraordinary commitment to him, he has been misunderstood.

It's not the fact that his music has polarized audiences; every credible composer has factions pro- and contra-. Rather, it's that, more than most contemporary composers, his drastically contrasting music demands additional listening and a desire to hear it. Hersch is best "gotten" in a smaller concert with those who want to hear his music, not in a big hall with patrons there for another piece.

A CD can bring the same experience, and it can be played repeatedly until Hersch's vast expanses of muted splendor and large-scale developments can be discerned.

This disc, released just last week, includes "Recordatio," an homage to Luciano Berio; "Two Pieces for Piano," a reduction of his excellent Piano Concerto; "After Holderlin's 'Halfte des Lebens'" for viola and cello; and Octet, performed by string soloists from the Berlin Philharmonic.

Hersch's ability to sustain intensity over quiet and deliberate themes is remarkable. In this soundscape, when an island of thunderous sound, a piercing cluster, a sweeping run or a semi-tonal progression passes by, it has a profound effect on the listener.

The piano works, with Hersch at the keyboard, are mesmerizing, but it is the Octet that shines here. Shimmering yet anguished passages float in a harmonic world that isn't cliched but isn't foreign, either. There are no themes, per se, in the 11-movement piece, but Hersch's patient and pure language compels one to follow him deep into music's most fundamental power.

<-- Andrew Druckenbrod

Contemporary jazz

ERIC MARIENTHAL: "Sweet Talk." Peak.
This latest CD from the former Chick Corea Elektric Band saxophonist is a disappointment, relatively speaking. It's still very, very good, considering he's apparently selling out to the demands of the smooth jazz market. His impeccable technique is practically nowhere to be found.

As on most smooth jazz recordings, you're often only as good as your supporting cast and Marienthal's is strong, including keyboardists Jeff Lorber and Dave Kochanski, the latter of the Rippingtons; bassist Tom Barney of Steely Dan's live band; and guitarist Chuck Loeb. The opening "Uptown" and "Secrets" still sound organic even though I know there's synth bass and drum machines on both tunes. "Caprichosa" features singer/-composer Ivan Lins, with the vocal in Portuguese.

The cover of "Tell Me Something Good," written by Stevie Wonder and originally performed by Chaka Khan when she was with Rufus, thankfully doesn't go on too long. Although Cassandra Reed handles the vocal, Marienthal takes the lead -- it's a real and rare duet between instrumentalist and vocalist.

Only "Sweet Talk," which Marienthal co-wrote with his son Robert, didn't impress me.

<-- Rick Nowlin

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