Madness, hell and transcendence

John Barton: Michael Kieran Harvey

 Michael Kieran Harvey, THNMF2013

Michael Kieran Harvey, THNMF2013

Michael Kieran Harvey, THNMF2013

Perth’s Government House Ballroom blazed with intensity as Michael Kieran Harvey performed a solo recital for the Totally Huge New Music Festival. Performing his own work for solo piano, Psychosonata (2012), and Melbourne-based composer Elliott Gyger’s Inferno (2013), an epic musical examination of Dante’s classic work, Harvey showed why he is one of the country’s leading contemporary classical pianists.

Psychosonata is a work that by the composer’s own admission has “no narrative.” However, while the piece may be devoid of melodic consistency, it is anything but devoid of colour and rhythmic flamboyance. Moving seamlessly between the three piano pedals, Harvey utilizes every tiny part of the piano’s timbre. With audible influences ranging from jazz to Elliot Carter, Harvey has created an engaging and interesting work that is demanding not only on the performer’s technical abilities, but also on the listener as the piece never holds a singular line of thought for long.

Psychosonata negotiates the depiction of a madman. However, what is most compelling is how much beauty emerges from this unpredictability. It is a beauty that perhaps reflects the madman in all of us who create meaning where none may actually exist.

Guided by Dante’s epic poem, Elliott Gyger’s Inferno depicts Hell in nine etudes, the scenes conjured by Harvey’s transcendental virtuosity. Gyger writes that the work is influenced by Romantic composer Franz Liszt; it is easy to associate it with that composer’s Années de Pèlerinage in terms of Inferno’s thematic movement and demands on pianistic skill.

Michael Kieran Harvey, THNMF2013

Michael Kieran Harvey, THNMF2013

Michael Kieran Harvey, THNMF2013

What is drastically different from Liszt however is the harmonic and rhythmic world that Gyger creates. Building on harmonic sonorities and then disassembling them with splintering dissonance, Inferno teases out the darkest colours of the piano at the extremes of its pitch ranges, relentlessly casting the listener into the dark and alien world of Hell. This hour long tour de force is a journey into an inescapable world of torment, which somehow remains coherent. Unlike Liszt, who tempered his fits of passion with the music of beautiful meadows and flowing mountain streams, Gyger flings us into the depths of Hell, from bursting flames into its most decrepit recesses.

Michael Kieran Harvey is nothing short of a national treasure, who should be recognized for not only his technical prowess but also for his humble support of new Australian works. This concert was no easy Sunday afternoon waltz, but it rewarded those willing to make the effort with a profound musical journey.

14 August 2013