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This report is taken from PN Review 250, Volume 46 Number 2, November - December 2019.

Between Hersch and Weiss
Sound and Image
David Hackbridge Johnson
Not sonatas by Mozart, Beethoven and Franck. With encores by Sarasate and W. Kroll. Not a five-minute world derniere buried between warhorses. But a twenty-two-movement cycle for violin and piano. Extremes of tempi, technique, perhaps even endurance. And accompanying paintings: depictions of loneliness, asylums, war, prisons, cannibalism, but also a string quartet, a garden concert, a boy in the grounds of a country house. Not your normal violin and piano recital then. Here is a stage set: the two instruments, yes, but also a screen for projecting the images of painter and playwright, Peter Weiss. And a sound world at first tentative, fragmented, but one that ultimately coheres as it progresses, revealing itself as a rich counterpoint to images and expression.  This is the work I heard just yesterday (15 November 2018) at St John’s Smith Square, a work played with expressive and scarcely believable virtuosity by violinist Peter Sheppard Skærved and pianist Roderick Chadwick.  

The composer Michael Hersch wrote his Zwischen Leben und Tod as a cycle to the paintings of Wiess, not I think as mere description of images but as a way of exploring the musical realisations of, as Hersch himself puts it, ‘color and motion, of proportion’. This suggests a deeper engagement with image than might be the case with a programmatic approach. This isn’t to imply that the music is dispassionate, quite the contrary, more that it seeks to plunge to an essence – how sound and image interact, one might almost say on the level of the vibrational spectrum. Yet, thoroughly engaged is sound to picture, viscerally so.

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