This collection of concert music by Fred Hersch, performed by pianist Eunbi Kim (along with violinist Yoon Kwon for Tango Bittersweet) is proof positive that good things do come in small packages and that much can still be learned/shared from past masters.
The opening—and longest work of the set—Variations on a Theme by Tchaikovsky—employing the plaintive melody from Symphony No. 4—is the perfect fodder to demonstrate Hersch’s “let’s start with this, but take it somewhere else” compositional skills. Following the first statement by Kim (which comes across overly affected and wanting more direction with the repeated notes to these ears), there is a fine array of inventiveness that will delight all listeners. The calmer variations work best—notably the “pastorale” which sports an ideal lilt and the “whimsical” that provides welcome contrast (certainly on the dark side, and oozing with emotion) to the powerful interventions around it, including snippets of Joplin and a superb “catch me if you can” outing (Kim does!). Some harmonic blue yields moments of reflection and not a little bit of Romantic angst—most certainly Tchaikovsky would approve. As the drama concludes there is—literally and figuratively—major optimism, a return to where it all began and triumphant finish that exudes optimism.
In many ways, Three Character Studies is the disc’s most satisfying work. Kim deftly captures all of the many shades and subtleties, beginning with a finely rendered, moody legato in Nocturne for the Left Hand. Little Spinning Song (barely a minute long) flits about the keyboard, providing ideal contrast to what came before and that which follows. Chorinho is loaded with Brazilian-rooted zest, fun and impishness that all cats can identify with. In these three characterizations, Hersch proves to be a master of inventiveness and strong advocate for the school of “less is definitely more.”
Written for Kim, Prelude No. 1 is infused with Satie-like Gymnopédie ebb and flow; its delectably sombre invitation to a very quiet, personal dance.
Tango Bittersweet is another marvel of pacing and development. Kwon starts off using a most enticingly understated approach, drawing everyone into her world before gradually emerging from the long-line shell. The extended piano solo is a model of push-and-pull control before ushering in a now declamatory, impassioned violin that soars both musically and emotionally. Naturally, and to complete Hersch’s carefully crafted arch, the music slips easily back to calmo and softly into the night.
Valentine gently poses the proverbial question, “Will you be mine?” The love is palpable in deed and in touch. And the reply? Listeners can decide for themselves.
The program finishes up with Little Midnight Nocturne, a sombre, searching essay trying to make peace with itself. Wandering triplets pull the duples along before blossoming into more and more vigorous lines then returning to the quest: finally at one with itself.
Let’s hope this Hersch-Kim collaboration continues; it is off to very good start. JWR