Fred Hersch: Breath By Breath

For the first time, the pianist records with a string quartet, variously deployed as lush background, partner in dialogue and abstract instigator


Pianist Fred Hersch always listened to string quartets as a child but before now has never recorded with one. The inspiration for this collaboration came from his own longstanding practice of mindfulness meditation; the title of the eight-piece suite that dominates this set is a Pali word meaning awareness or mindfulness. For Hersch, meditation is not about emptying your mind but observing, recognising that his meditation allows him to align his daily existence with the enlightened state he reaches when playing the piano.

His approach to the string writing is to let the quartet take on various roles in relation to the piano trio, in one piece providing a lush background, in another being an equal partner in dialogue or acting as an abstract instigator.

The music was recorded live, so that his trio – percussionist Rogerio Boccato only appears on Mara – and the quartet could properly interact with each other. It all comes together well, the romantic restraint of Awakened Heart offsetting the jaunty opening that is Begin Again and the lush cushioning of Breath By Breath. Monkey Mind is arresting for its stop-start interpretation of a troubled mind struggling to be at rest, Mara for its unexpected accents. Predictably, attention is focused on the string quartet, the supporting trio remaining very much in the background.

As with every recording by Hersch, this is a well-mannered set, polite in approach but always rewarding and, of course, impeccably played. Another fine feather in his cap.

The Sati Suite: Begin Again / Awakened Heart / Breath By Breath / Monkey Mind / Rising, Falling / Mara / Know That You Are / Worldly Winds; Pastorale (46.29)
Hersch (p); Crosby Street String Quartet: Joyce Hammann, Laura Seaton (vn); Lois Martin (vla); Jody Redhage Ferber (clo); Drew Gress (b); Jochen Rueckert (d); Rogerio Boccato (pc). Astoria, NYC, 24–25 August 2021.
Palmetto PM2198