Powerful persuasiveness

MICHAEL BERTRAM  FANTAISIE-SONATA

Michael Kieran Harvey

Move Record  MD 3407

 

Michael Bertram Fantaisie-Sonata

 

It’s not a form you come across too often, the fantasy-sonata combination.  There are the two by Scriabin – an early one outside the canon and the Op. 19 in G sharp minor (there’s a lovely key for you) – one by Raff, another by Turina.  Only the German composer uses the same title word-order as Michael Bertram; not that it would make too much difference, I suppose, except in giving some hint about the composer’s set of priorities.  The Australian work is a confronting amalgam that has a great freedom in its opening, then becomes more formally conservative as it moves towards its ending.

The Fantaisie-Sonata is this CD’s major offering, coming in at a little under 50 minutes.  In comparison, the other compositions are slighter: two of the Six Bagatelles from 2012, the Seven Sarcasms for an Out-Of-Tune Piano, and an isolated Violet 2, written five years ago. None of these cracks the five-minute mark, the Sarcasms cycle’s elements decreasing in time-span as the work moves to its conclusion.  But, as a job lot, these comprise a substantial amount of the composer’s output for solo piano.   Still, the oldest piece is the CD’s title work which has waited 16 years for its appearance here, performed by its initial interpreter with splendid technical mastery and obvious sympathy.

Bertram’s Fantaisie-Sonata consists of three movements that offer a progress from the particular to the general, a fairly localised background to something approaching the transcendental.   If you search for the fantasy element, the work’s first and longest segment comes closest to it.  Each of the movements is explicated  –  or not –  by a quotation and, for the first, Bertram cites part of The Wanderings of Oisin by Yeats:

And then lost Niamh murmured, ‘Love, we go

To the Island of Forgetfulness, for lo!

The Islands of Dancing and of Victories

Are empty of all power.’

‘And which of these

Is the Island of Content?’

‘None know,’ she said  .  .  .

The aim is to set up a ‘Celtic phantasmagoria’, and so the listener is given this mental framework of the legendary Irish hero wandering through the centuries with his loving fairy princess before coming to the realization that his age is past.  The movement opens with Morse code-style twitterings in the instrument’s high register above a sequence of repeated chords and gestures; a heavy start that fades to placidity, where the material moves to manipulating intervals and motifs, like oscillating 3rds and 4ths.  At the 10/11 minute mark, the texture moves to washes of colour, semi-impressionist in flavour where a mid-range ostinato supports small flashes or flourishes in the piano’s upper and lower reaches alternately.   The movement turns darker with block bass chords punctuating the restless onward flow before a release of tension as Bertram takes his dominant line for a Klee-like walk.   More formal patterns come into play, almost an exercise-type interlude when Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum is suggested at the 13-minute mark.  The key of C minor dominates in this sudden excursion into Debussyanism which at one point could almost be breaking into a reminiscence of Jardins sous la pluie, but the ominous ostinato returns to centre the action and also move away from any focal tonal suggestions.  The fantasy element continues to a small nodal point where the work breaks into oscillating 3rds at the 16-minute point before a burst of Rachmaninov-style roulades, taken with infectious dash by Harvey, the movement’s climactic point arriving after some determined crescendos, with an error at 19:13 distracting for a moment from the high-point’s stentorian insistence which dwindles, you would think, to silence before an emphatic big bass full-stop.

For his second movement, Bertram sets the scene with a sentence extract from the Conclusion to Pater’s The Renaissance:

we have an interval, and then our place knows us no more.

After the first movement’s freedom, this offers stark contrast in a set of variations on a brief theme.   It begins with softly-drawn pastel textures punctuated by some more colourful outbursts.   The segments that follow offer: a Gershwin-style jaunt with plenty of artfully placed grace notes; an etude of restrained elegance; a burst of Latin rhythm that suggests a habanera/tango hybrid couched in salonesque language; an exercise in Bartok-style intervallic play, if not as rigorous in its counterpoint as the Hungarian master’s practice, which develops into rhetorical bravura before a return to the opening’s discipline; yet another Debussy suggestion as a shimmering backdrop underpins a long-ranging melody weaving above the susurrus, before the four-note theme appears, set in high, soft relief before broken arpeggios and triads conclude the movement peacefully. Bertram presents this as a ‘life-story’, an abstract on Everyman and I suppose there’s plenty here to suggest the multiplicity that our existence has to offer.

For his concluding pages, the composer resorts to Kepler’s Harmonices Mundi :

Man [in imitation of his creator] wanted to reproduce the continuity of cosmic time  .  .  .

In this section of his text, the mathematician/astronomer is postulating that making music or song is an attempt by man to share God’s joy in creation.   So Bertram has moved from the specific if imaginary that Yeats hymns, to the mundanity of real life with its ups and downs, to this plane where the world disappears and we observe – and participate in – the opposition of darkness and light.   The first is given musical voice through a sequence of ‘synthetic’ scales, which suggest Messiaen’s modes of limited transposition but are simpler in presentation and employment; the light takes the form of insistent notes and chords.  This Manichaean juxtaposition opens with clouds of ascending and  descending scales, Harvey’s sustaining pedal applied lavishly; Bertram obviously enjoyed this textural mesh as he maintains it almost to the stage of irritation.  Then come the repeated notes, recalling the first movement, here tamed by supporting chords that are eventually repeated common chords.  The scales return, then the chords in quick succession before a long sequence of composite textures rooted in the C tonality.  A final downward scalar plunge precedes the victory of the light’s repeated chords alternating between left and right hands, fading to a concluding broken C major triad.

For its breadth – of intellectual ambition, of pianistic skill, of emotional flexibility, of sustained continuity – this is an extraordinary construct, Harvey giving it as eloquent an interpretation as you could want.  What I find particularly attractive about it is that it maintains your attention; it excites, puzzles, illuminates in turn and what sense you make of its language, form and imaginative processes depends on a willingness to enter Bertram’s idiosyncratic but remarkably open sound-world.

No. 2 of the Six Bagatelles, called Chant, is based on a Russian folk-song fragment that has obsessed the composer for some time.  The melody is not covered in additional excrescences; rather, you notice the large number of repeated single notes in its outline with a modest application of harmonizing chords.  At the end, the tune is left pretty much to speak for itself.    No. 5, Uranus, uses an upper spaced/broken arpeggio pattern with isolated, sustained chords underneath.  Bertram cites Brian Eno as inspiration; I presume, the appeal lies in the British composer’s minimalist ventures as you hear a fair amount of pattern work while Bertram is proposing his sound-images of this icy, faceless planet.

Violet 2 is a travel piece that employs a central minor chord ostinato as an immediate suggestion that the journey is either fraught at the start or going to turn unpleasant, if not tragic.  The tune begins with an alternating 2nd interval in the soprano register, the focus changing to a slightly more interesting motivic cell in the bass.  The texture grows pointillist, reverts to the juxtaposition of high and low sound-layers before a clear expression of frustration at a dissonant-laden high-point.  The piece’s ending is as dark as the music gets on this CD.

Finally, the Seven Sarcasms suggest Prokofiev in their title and the first of them has a tang of the Russian composer although the parallels don’t go very far in a short piece notable for its use of repeated chords.   The second, a waltz, eventually moves into a regular rhythm but stops continually for pregnant pauses; the piece hints at satisfaction but remains unfinished, stunted in its progress.   No. 3 uses the Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen melody, opening in orthodox mode before veering into Messiaen-suggesting chords above the tune with a repeated pedal note to add to the fun.  The following piece seems Webernian in character – it’s disjointed enough – but the referent sounds come through only in flashes;  Bertram is too fond of sustained washes to mimic the serial master’s acerbic scintillations.   The fifth of the series seems to propose one effect after another; despite an arresting and original cluster series, this terse scrap avoided engaging attention.   No. 6 skipped past in Hindemith’s Lebhaft mode; happy if brief.  To end, a Presto with quick pattern-work bubbled above some striding left hand Hindemith-style action.

These smaller-scale works give some further samples of Bertram at work, all of them assimilable and often atmospherically convincing.   Still, the effect of the disc as a whole is rather lop-sided because of the impressive canvas on which the composer has set his fantasy-sonata.   For all that, Move has done us all excellent service by giving a voice to this impressively questing, challenging composer and by providing a forum once again for the insights and artistry of this country’s finest pianist.