Rainer Hersch – All Classical Music Explained


Rainer Hersch

Reviewed by: Edward Lewis

Reviewed: 1 June, 2007
Venue: The Red Hedgehog, Highgate, London N6

Very few entertainers have successfully mixed classical music and comedy. Gerard Hoffnung and Victor Borge spring to mind. It is, therefore, a brave man who tries to follow in these footsteps, and the engaging Rainer Hersch does just that.

I first saw Hersch perform at his first Edinburgh Festival Fringe show, and, amid the swathes of dire metaphysical dramas awash with repressed adolescent student angst and double acts attempting to recreate the Battle of Hastings using nothing but their genitals and a kazoo, he was a breath of pure, uncomplicated fresh air, and one that I can remember over a decade later.

In that time, the world has become a more cynical one, and classical music, sadly, increasingly the preserve of the wealthy, elderly or foreign. Hersch’s humour is largely borne of the Borge-school of good clean fun, and stands out in a comic landscape in which profanities litter every utterance.

And let’s get this straight – Hersch is very funny. Intrinsically funny, with an innate sense of comic timing, and an apparent honesty that is at once both beguiling and disarming. It must be said that the crowds did not flock to The Red Hedgehog, but, where lesser performers would have let this diminish their glory, Hersch used it to his advantage. Every member of the select audience became vital to the show – this wasn’t a lecture to a faceless crowd, but a chat and a drink in the presence of a friend.

Hersch has spent his time since our last meeting travelling the world and conquering the radio and TV waves. I think he has his work cut out, for the simple reason of audience demographics. It was never quite clear who his brief explanation of all classical music was aimed at. Was it the total novice – the cheery couple in the front row who were there solely because someone had clamped their motorbike – or the tutting generation – the older, discerning sort who know it all and like to be seen knowing it all? Because, by entertaining one, you risk patronising or losing the other.

I don’t know what the solution is. Hoffnung concentrated on the elite, who would understand each and every reference. Borge oscillated – often at his most funny when leaving music aside for a moment. Hersch seems to veer towards the other end, and instantly runs into a problem of marketing – people who don’t like classical music are unlikely to be tempted to find out why.

Hersch’s set pieces are often hilarious – revealing the ‘actual’ words of Italian operatic classics, sharing with us what only the players see of the conductor, and discussing the characters that lurk in the orchestra. He is also the inventor of the ‘piano stick’ – the fantastically funny solution to the problem of small hands.

But under the comedy, there is something else, I think: a musician who genuinely cares. When called enthusiastically back for an encore, the mask of the comic muse slipped for a few moments and the motivation glimmered through. Music belongs to nobody, and everyone, rich, poor, educated or not. As if to underline this, Hersch left us not with superficial or cynical gags, not with another side-splitting routine, but with a gentle, moving performance on the piano.

  • The Red Hedgehog
  • The Red Hedgehog is situated at 255-257 Archway Road, Highgate, London, N6 5BS
  • Box Office: 020 8348 5050

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