Revisiting Fred Hersch

David Hajdu’s article on Fred Hersch in the Times Magazine several weeks ago led me to pull out some of his recordings, in particular the 3-CD set he released on Nonesuch in 2001. I’m especially fond of the solo work that dominates this album. One highlight is the astonishing version of Cole Porter’s  “So in Love”. In the booklet notes Hersch calls it “probably the slowest ballad I ever recorded.” The performance lasts nearly 8 minutes, yet consists of a brief intro, a coda, and only two choruses! Now, part of the deal on that is the form* of the song. Porter notated the piece in cut time, with the opening notes of the melody (“Strange dear, but true dear”) notated as half, half tied to half, half, etc. This means the form of the piece is the usual AABA, but each section is 16 bars, except the last A which is extended. Does anyone play the piece as though the tune was written in 4/4 quarter notes – with a walking quarter note bass? The number of bars would obviously be halved, and the piece would be closer to a conventional 32 bars (plus that extension). Why does the mind rebel at that idea? The booklet notes say that Hersch usually plays the piece in 5/4 – presumably a bar of 5/4 for each bar of cut time – a vastly more sophisticated way of filling in those long measures than the usual cocktail piano strategy of a bossa nova or even, Lord help us, a rhumba feel. The song is from Kiss Me Kate, and the performance on the Broadway cast album is about 72 to the half note, a solid andante. Hersch plays the piece with a basically steady quarter note pulse of left hand chords at  about 60, but he plays the piece in 6/4! (Or, call the pulsing chords triplets – the notation would differ, my point is the same.) Two bars of cut time are covered in 6 pulsing chords. So: on Broadway, two measures of cut time lasted 4 beats at 72 (3.33 seconds); in Hersch’s version, two bars of the original cut time now last 6 beats at roughly 60 (6 seconds) (or 3 beats at 30, if you like, which would be off the metronome). The 6/4 feels utterly natural, so much so that at first I thought the piece was being played in 4/4, with generous rubato. There certainly is rubato here, but the metric framework has been altered from the original version.

Of course, just playing slowly is no special feat (after all, we’ve all worked with drummers who seemed to make a specialty of it, and I don’t mean that in a positive way.) What makes the performance a tour-de-force is the way Hersch is able to spin out a line that keeps up the continuity despite the luxuriously slow pace. The duple/triple tension between the pulsing chords and the tune helps keep the melodic thread taut. It feels a bit like the slow movement of the Ravel Concerto in G** with its steadily pulsing left hand chords, though the right hand melody in the Ravel does not offer an opportunity for the wonderfully elastic rubato that Hersch brings to bear here.

Hersch remarks in the booklet about this tune that “as a solo, it struck me more as an intimate confession between one person and another, almost like whispering in bed.” It’s an apt image for a haunting performance. Pillow talk may be intimate like this recording, but never this eloquent.

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*Allen Forte (yes, the same fellow known for writing about post-tonal music) writes perceptively about the superbly shaped melody of this piece in The American Popular Ballad of the Golden Era.

**John Adams has recently blogged interestingly about Ravel here.