No blood on the keys?

Keith Gallasch, Michael Kieran Harvey, piano recital

Michael Kieran Harvey, 2013, Carriageworks

Michael Kieran Harvey, 2013, Carriageworks

Michael Kieran Harvey, 2013, Carriageworks

At the end of Michael Kieran Harvey’s concert of three demanding Australian works for piano, played without an interval, I wandered onto the stage with curious others from the enthusiastic audience to inspect the magnificent Shigeru Hawai grand piano with which the pianist collaborated to produce sound on an orchestral scale. Harvey, his shirt sweat-drenched, had left the stage, looking pleased if somewhat frayed, providing only one curtain call while the audience clapped for more. I inspected the keyboard—no blood.

As a child I saw Cornell Wilde as the consumptive Chopin in the hugely popular, clunky biopic A Song to Remember (1946) coughing up blood mid-performance, Tyrone Power as popular American pianist and band leader Eddy Duchin (in the tear-jerker The Eddy Duchin story, 1956), his hand freezing over the keyboard (Duchin died of leukemia), and Dirk Bogarde who, oddly cast as Franz Liszt in Song Without End (1970), apparently practised the piano parts for filming until his fingers bled (Jorge Bolet provided the pre-recorded notes).

The heroic pianist, as Harvey reminded us in his witty introduction, was largely an invention of the piano virtuoso Liszt, whose aura quickly enveloped this concert in densely scored works that engaged both thunderingly and subtly with the entire keyboard. Recalling the death of Tatiana Nikolayeva as she played the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues in a concert in 1993 Harvey regarded the huge Kawai with amused reserve.

An exacting performance for Harvey proved to be deeply pleasing for the audience, warranting considerable concentration. A champion of the Australian pianist and composer Raymond Hanson’s rarely performed Piano Sonata (1938-63; 20 minutes), Harvey told us that the work had been received as too radical at its first hearing and as too conservative in the 1960s. The sonata’s powerful, driving opening and the subsequent alternations between emphatic bass lines sparkling high note reprieves, a rippling middle ground, near-jazz inflections and overall building intensity felt nothing less than Lisztian, and certainly more romantically emotional than might be expected of a composer under the influence, said Harvey, of Hindemith.

Michael Kieren Harvey

Michael Kieren Harvey

Michael Kieren Harvey

As promised, the second movement was lovely, its “air of mystery” rising from the left hand “like a fog horn,” and ending with a soft, rumbling, troubled gait. As with the opening movement, we were immediately plunged into intensely emotional drama on its way to gigantic waves of cascading notes (“The last two pages,” admitted Harvey, “are almost unplayable”). In between there were passages of great beauty, warm, lush, sweetly rippling and deeply chiming. Sonata and performance were wonderfully memorable.

Although the sonata is not programmatic, Harvey thought that it might have been prompted by the fall of France in World War II. It certainly is passionately defiant, withdrawing into reflection only to return more aggressive than ever. To complete the saga of death and the pianist with which I began, Hanson received the published score of his underrated sonata on the day he died in 1963. The good news was an instance of synchronicity—Hanson had played at the Eveleigh railway works, the site of Carriageworks, for the Railway Union Workers “on their 20-minute lunch breaks where he would also discuss his ideas for an Australian Trades Union Orchestra” (program note).

Psychosonata, Piano Sonata 2 (2012, 25 minutes), is one of Michael Kieran Harvey’s own compositions, a work, he said, that came out of “a low ebb.” He had intended to dedicate it to a helpful psychologist, but having done so with his first Sonata, he gave this one to his cat, Psycho.

Structuring the sonata around rising and descending nine-note lines, Harvey, like Lizst, if quite humbly, sees himself as attempting to create “a sound world different from anything before.” Like the Hanson, Psychosonata commences with a grand attack. Thundering bass lines and then upper note shocks and relentless riffing soon depart from high modernist hard-edged juxtapositions with sublime fluency, waves of notes rising and sinking into the deep against an insistent return to the unnerving counterpoint between the highest notes and the lowest. After the briefest of pauses, high notes, sweet but assertive are soon subsumed in a dense, cathartic fury, stutteringly staccato—a provisional finale to the fearful and liberating waves of ascent and descent that constitute Psychosonata.

Before commencing Elliot Gyger’s Inferno (After Dante, 2013), a 20-minute selection of eight movements from an hour-long cycle written for Harvey, the pianist sits perfectly still, hands on lap, seemingly staring deep into the score. This time the attack is vocal: a growl alternating with a squeal and other sounds, almost words, soon textured with piano notes in The Prelude: The Gates of Hell Canto III. The strikingly ‘unpretty’ vocal is reminiscent of the ‘non-operatic’ sounds of Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre. “The nine lines of the inscription above the Gate of Hell…are transcribed, syllable by syllable, into rough-hewn piano gestures.” It’s an unsettling opening, performed by Harvey with conviction. In Acheron, low notes and high pulse and tinkle asynchronously to represent the disturbing movement of the river of Hades. We encounter the unbaptised (on an even more disorienting plane), the lustful (passionate, obsessed, opening up the range of the keyboard), the gluttonous (rhythmically furious, tormenting), the traitors (“frozen in everlasting ice” in the lowest depths of the piano) and Cocytus, the river of ice, moving in huge, heavily chorded shards. Relief comes with Postlude: The Stars, “as Dante and his guide emerge to see the night sky above them.” As in the Prelude, Harvey voices syllables from The Inferno, here with almost sub-vocal softness, in and out of synch with the piano, generating an eery, melodic and deeply satisfying beauty that evaporates into silence. It’s as if we’ve been unburdened of the emotional weight of the concert’s three works that had taken hold of our psyches.

Gyger writes that “each etude explores a different subset of the piano’s range,” which accounts for the work’s richness and the opportunities on offer for a brilliant pianist with a Lizstian vision and capacity. I long to experience the complete work. Congratulations to Carriageworks and its new music curator Louis Garrick for an adventurous program, so determinedly rewarding, promoting and celebrating bold Australian composition.

Carriageworks, piano, Michael Kieran Harvey, works by Raymond Hanson, MK Harvey, Elliott Gyger, new music curator Louis Garrick, Carriageworks, Sydney, July 19

RealTime issue #115 June-July 2013 pg. web

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

24 July 2013