A dry season trifecta


Musica Viva

Thursday October 1, 2020

Bernadette Harvey

The latest in Musica Viva’s direct telecast recitals, this program found pianist Bernadette Harvey performing in a Sydney gallery to a small audience. As far as I can remember from previous MV escapades of this kind, having a live audience is a new move, a sign that what we used to consider as normal could be on the way back. Of course, the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall has been spruiking for live audience members over the past weeks but then Adele Schonhardt and Christopher Howlett have been at the forefront of pandemic-time musical activity since the first hit revealed that life for all artists had changed, these two blazing a trail for everybody else to follow – tentatively, in the main, especially considering the talent allowed to lie fallow that emerges in lots of orchestral rehashes and solo instrumental squibs.

No point in getting bitter, is there? Even if the thought of all that salaried talent fallen into quiescence makes you wonder about an absence of enterprise from bodies with pages of patrons and sponsorships, all quite content to show minimal signs of life, leaving real and useful activity up to the MDCH and Brisbane Music Festival’s Alex Raineri. Musica Viva is doing its best, faced with the enforced absence of its usual rota of overseas guests. So Harvey’s hour of performance brightened up an operational landscape that currently depends largely on the drive of three young musicians.

Her program fell into three sections: a completely unfamiliar (to me, if not to you, mainly because I can’t trace a published score or a recorded performance) Second Sonatine by Donald Hollier who stands among the least-performed of this country’s senior composers; a selection of five pieces from Chopin’s Op. 10 Etudes – Nos. 1, 3, 8, 9 and 4; and Alternating Current by the American writer Kevin Puts, which is one of Harvey’s party pieces as she recorded it for the Tall Poppies label in 2011 and on YouTube you can find her authoritative live performance from March last year in Tucson.

Written in 1997, Alternating Current proved to be the most interesting work on this program. Its three movements kept you engaged through their motoric energy and Puts’ mastery of making his material work to fine effect, both in terms of virtuosity and simple emotional messaging. The opening is reminiscent of a toccata – not necessarily a Bach, but more a Buxtehude with its constant changes of pace. This enjoyed a brilliant expounding from Harvey, who showed herself quite aware of the composition’s metrical dispositions and the often relentless digital precision required to swamp the listener in a benign hammering. Despite the brilliance of these pages – an exhilarating updating of Le Tic-toc-choc – I was more taken by the following slow movement with its descending bell-like chords and simple melodic motives – the whole a mono-chromatic canvas in the end where the insistence on a root tonality (E flat? Couldn’t tell for sure because of screen/sound delay and creative camera angles) generated an all-too-appealing immersive web of sonority.

For a finale, Puts went all out in another rapid movement, also something of a toccata but an intentionally bitonal one – each hand playing in the ‘key’ of the preceding movements. I tried keeping track of the matter under discussion but soon gave up because clearly the urgent forward motion was the prime aim. Here, Harvey proved most persuasive, generating full-bodied washes of sound, making light work of the deft syncopations. As with the first movement, you were taken up by the energy and insistence although, thanks to the superimposed tonalities, this finale showed more bite in its dissonances and more variety in its march towards a harmonically satisfying, if orthodox, conclusion.

Hollier’s 1996 Second Sonatine, subtitled On popular themes, runs to four movements and cites themes that everyone should know – if only they were recognizable. But it’s not the composer’s job to make his music over-simple, although Hollier goes some way towards that in his third movement Ayre: Nostalgico, con molto rubato – a rumination on the Lennon(?)-McCartney song Yesterday. Thank God Harvey told us at the end which other sources had been recast.

A choral (?) prelude made for an elegant opening in the slow and stately mode that the title probably was meant to suggest, samples of it discernible in everything of this genre from Bach to Reger. What first impressed you was Hollier’s whimsical mordents in the progress of his melodic line, which was punctuated by quick block chords moving in either direction. Climaxing in a state of quasi-hysteria, the movement covered itself with a dark, slow conclusion. This used Joseph Kosma‘s Autumn Leaves, carefully transmuted. A passacaglia followed, but nothing like the big C minor for organ; this was a dance that moved in metre between 5/8 and 6/8 and covered in its freneticism the title song from Jerry Herman‘s Hello, Dolly! Although the fluctuating time-signature suggests a bumpy ride, this was a steady set of pages, regularly irregular but well-equipped with clusters and rapid scale-work. And brief.

The Yesterday treatment brought to mind Grainger’s musings on Gershwin, although Hollier was not so tightly bound to his original, deviating from the original and lingering over fragments of the whining melody, like the rise and fall of a 6th at the words ‘Why’d she have to go? I don’t know, she wouldn’t say’. For all the clever loitering, this experience reminded me of nothing so much as the sort of thing you’d hear in an up-market piano bar. Harvey held on to some notes longer than any lounge pianist would dare, and Hollier’s ending sounded disappointingly bland and ‘easy’ – or perhaps he was making a sardonic comment on his material.

The sonatine’s finale, a Fugue: Allegro ritmico, was certainly that and more. Shades of Prokofiev and Bartok proved hard to ignore with loads of cutting harmonic clashes and the fugue’s lines running into each other rather than coalescing into a mellifluous whole. Hollier’s headlong progress came to a sort of stretto climax with hand-smashes across the keyboard, although the whole thing wound up with a kind of fugal flourish as the composer finished dealing with the Toreador’s March from Carmen (or was that just Escamillo’s aria from Act Two?) and Strangers in the Night by Bert Kaempfert. In the end, this unknown piece turned out to be great entertainment and a fine showcase for Harvey’s virtuosity and ready sympathy – a deft reflection from the other side of the Pacific on Puts’ powerhouse construct written a year later.

As a preface to the five Etudes, Harvey spoke of the differences between Chopin and herself, which didn’t lead to many insights, probably because the address seemed diffuse and unsure of what it intended to accomplish. During No. 1 in C Major, the right hand arpeggios proved pretty reliable, although a squeaky top D flat six bars from the end detracted from the work’s fluency. You could find much to like with No. 3 in E Major, even if Harvey showed a tendency to ‘point’ notes too often – lingering in a mini-rubato at melody-disturbing points. By contrast, her handling of the central poco piu animato section was powerful and eloquent in both passion and drive. No. 8 in F gave us a good deal of perky left hand work underneath the semiquaver-happy right hand which again did not maintain absolute accuracy.

You rarely hear No. 9 in F minor, unless the executant is presenting the complete set. Harvey made a persuasive case for the piece’s characteristic restlessness but also found out its declamatory quality, particularly when Chopin gives octaves to the right hand. I don’t know whether a decelerando in the final bars works, but if that’s what you think makes a suitable conclusion, you can only choose to disagree on principle when it’s accomplished with this amount of finesse. Harvey’s decision to wind up with No. 4 in C sharp during which both hands enjoy a thorough workout was successful; here, you could find few flaws in the technical work and she managed to sustain the study’s interest despite the temptation to segmentalise it into a series of two-, four- and six-bar challenges.

Again, thanks to Musica Viva for presenting this event, more worthwhile than many in that I’ve rarely heard Harvey in my time in Melbourne and am probably unlikely to experience her work live in the Light North. Among a plethora of artists with few conceptions about how to interpret difficult music, she has been – and continues to be – a welcome presence that should be exposed more often.