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Invocation
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Choral “Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” BWV 639 (arr. Busoni) [3:31]
Choral “Non komm der Heiden Heiland” BWV 659 (arr. Busoni) [5:03]
Aria “Die Seele ruht in Gottes Händen” (arr. Harold Bauer) [6:16]
Tristan MURAIL (b.1947)
Cloches d’adieu, et un sourire…in memoriam Olivier Messiaen [5:02]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Pater noster [4:20]
Bénédiction de dieu dans le solitude [17:33]
Funérailles [10:56]
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Cloches d’angoisse et larmes d’adieu [9:32]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
La vallée des cloches [6:14]
Herbert Schuch (piano)
rec. Aug.-Sept. 2013, Klaus-von-Bismarck Saal, WDR, Cologne, Germany
NAÏVE V5362 [68:27]

With almost every new release, Herbert Schuch confirms he’s one of the best, smartest, and most interesting of the century’s new pianists. Take this programme: based around the sounds of church bells, it takes in everything from Bach to Messiaen and Murail. When you hear Bach after Messiaen, it doesn’t sound baroque any more. The context gives Bach a new voice. It’s like hanging Turner paintings in the Grand Canyon.

The ingenious ways that Schuch mixes musical styles, and the perceptive connections he makes between them, are much of the pleasure of this recital. If ever you’re unconvinced, head to the booklet, which quotes his insights on each piece. Franz Liszt’s brutal, dramatic “Funérailles,” in a willful, impulsive performance, is matched to the soft evocative mists of Ravel’s “La vallée des cloches”. Messiaen is bookended by Bach, a chorale and aria. Tristan Murail’s dissonances introduce the unassuming hymn that is Liszt’s Pater noster.

Then you have the performances themselves: crisp, contrastful, deeply intelligent. I should warn you that Herbert Schuch is not for everybody. He has strong, divisive opinions, and a bold personality. His Bach chorales, like Alexandre Tharaud’s, are softly sung, with lots of sustain pedal and minimal percussive effects. The sound is very pianistic, then, although you can’t call it romantic, because he doesn’t pull and squeeze the tempo like Barenboim might.

Take his Liszt, which by contrast is bracingly romantic but in a direct, clear-eyed way. The “Bénédiction de dieu dans la solitude,” despite weighing in at 17:33, is a performance I’ve had on repeat for a while. The first section is divine, with the heavenly, consistent tolling of the bells in the piano’s high range. The rest sounds a lot like Chopin, specifically the Chopin of the ballades and Fantasie. It’s quite a trick.

“Funérailles,” by contrast, is on the quicker side. It starts and ends with high-voltage drama, doom and gloom, lots of Lisztian bluster, and big dramatic pauses. In the central section, Schuch stretches out to indulgent lengths, before, from 7:00-8:00, hurling himself into the wildest playing on the CD. Only Messiaen can match this for sheer intensity and anguish, since “Larmes d’adieu” was written by the young composer on the death of his mother. This work remains rare: notable previous recordings are by Angela Hewitt, Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Håkon Austbø, all of them in all-Messiaen programmes.

In summary, this is yet another fascinating recital from a fascinating pianist. You may not like his approach, so distinctive and forceful is it, but I’m sure you’ll respect it. Odds are you’ll join the cult of fans who wait impatiently for every new Herbert Schuch release. Naïve provides their typical brilliant engineering, and reportedly they’ve signed Schuch to a contract for more. After an inspired recital inspired by church bells and spanning 300 years, one can only imagine what he’ll do next.

Brian Reinhart