PIANO SONATA NO. 5 ‘GRETA’
Michael Kieran Harvey
Move Records MD 3452
This CD offers the same work twice. First, Harvey performs his Piano Sonata No. 5 on your common or garden-variety piano . Then he offers a second performance given on different forms of keyboard. The first movement, 100 bpm, uses an electric organ; the following Misterioso, a Fender Rhodes piano; Retorico, an electric harpsichord; Ritmico, electric bass; and the final, shortest section – Maestoso stoico, con rubato – employs an electric piano. The work is in five parts, dictated by the letters in the first name of activist Greta Thunberg. R? and T? I hear you cry? Well, make allowances: for Harvey, R transmutes to D, and T becomes F. So the fundamental notes run G-D-E-F-A – which tends to be forgotten in a work that, as only Harvey can, takes you by the throat and carries you along on yet another brilliant virtuosic ride.
Actually, I’m not sure that this particular work needs much coverage. If you want to hear its content, you can find it on YouTube where you can also find the long poem REGRET by Harvey’s long-time collaborator, Arjun von Caemmerer, which documents the number of Australian species, animal and botanical, that is at risk or has disappeared. It hardly needs saying that the sonata and poem are tributes to Thunberg’s environment-defending passion, an atonement for Harvey who has dedicated the work to his own children – which is probably both an apology and a promise to do better on behalf of us all.
The work starts in an ambience somewhere between a formal sonata with a prodigious wealth of ideas and a hefty toccata. Is there a preponderance of the note G? Not so you’d notice but the movement hurtles past in a welter of athleticism. Sure, you come across passages of tamped-down action. Open octaves alternate with syncopated block-chords that dominate the opening pages, but the work’s progress is chameleonic; you hear scraps that seem semi-familiar – revisitings for example, of the cadenza-like flights that punctuate the opening firm assertions. Textural transparency in two parts gives way to intense and thick writing, the whole typical of Harvey’s often overwhelming fluency, climaxing in a series of frenetic right-hand glissandi.
No break before we are in the Misterioso; in fact, there is a deliberate blurring before the opening high D repetitions take control, sounding like a kind of musical Morse code. It might be mysterious in ambition, but the activity level is hardly pulled back and before long Harvey is back with his intense and loud pointillism: another toccata with some astonishing repeated note demonstrations, followed later by brilliant, even trills. And the riches keep on coming when the player’s two hands operate on different levels, apparently independent of each other in rhythm, dynamic and what I can only describe as digital content and attack. Suddenly a rapid-fire canon between the hands begins and keeps you guessing about its shape, before the Morse note returns and the movement halts on a soft chord.
Which is immediately followed in attacca mode by the middle Retorico which opens with a rash of flourishes and dramatic pauses, these gestures punctuated by multi-layered trills. You are aware that, despite the occasional, outburst of first-movement vehemence, these pages are fundamentally intent on hard-edged melodic lines, to the point where repetitions become apparent even in the middle of the movement’s latter-part welters. At the end, Harvey comes back to his opening with its crisp flights between anchor points and trills, leading without pause into the Ritmico.
Which brings us again into Harvey’s stunning virtuosic field that carries you forward on an irresistible tide, here comprising a constant underpinning of semiquavers, sometimes at the octave and at others in parallel or contrary motion, with a five note figure sporadically emerging in both hands. The actual rhythmic continuum is a sequence of surprises; you think you have a handle on things moving in fast groups of three, but suddenly you’re in duple (or quadruple?) territory with irregular emphases to make an irrelevance of counting before the 5/16 gruppetti enter. And, abruptly, the onrush is halted at about 4’15” for a series of slow, portentous chords that recall Rachmaninov 2 in a strange manner. before a final brilliant set of coruscations leads to a definite ending.
The last movement is separated from the preceding four by a track break. It starts on an unequivocal A minor chord and is the most polemical of the five with a wide-ranging compass in both hands and makes its statements with a Brahmsian stoicism – it’s far from relevant but the opening chords with the intervening sets of triplets suggest (to this cluttered mind) the opening to Brahms’ B flat Concerto, even if the harmonic language is centuries distant. As you might predict, the temperature warms up considerably and the work moves through a series of segments that suggest fragments from previous movements, although most of these are fleeting apart from a brilliant chain of repeated notes. The last word is energetic in the extreme, the sonata concluding with an upward, optimistic inflexion.
When you come to the alternative version for electronic instruments, the work’s character necessarily changes. Movement 1 for electronic organ is memorable for the sustained chords and some brilliant pointillist high note sequences that recall early studio experiments by Kagel and Stockhausen. I think Harvey is using a two-manual instrument – or perhaps he’s lightning fast between registration changes. Here, and elsewhere, the bucket-loads of chords take on a more muted effect because the percussive attack is absent. Oddly enough, you have a more informed view of the movement’s content, its form and its recapitulations more obvious.
There is a break before the next track; naturally, as Harvey changes instruments to a Fender Rhodes piano with a lavishly employed sustaining pedal, Mind you, it seems that there’s an inbuilt quality that the executant is anxious to explore, moving between non-reverberant staccato runs in the centre of this Misterioso and summoning up washes of sound. Here again, the uses of fabrics and material seem more easy to pick out. Not all the time, of course, but shapes take on distinct form in particular parts of the Fender’s compass. By contrast, the harpsichord timbre in the following track aids Harvey in adding bite to the opening rapid flurries of ornamentation. As well, the unusual ability to sustain notes gives an extra dimension to this clear-speaking set of pages, and the multiple-trills sections towards the end have a ferocity that recalls Puyana playing Scarlatti.
You can hear little break between the Fender Rhodes and the harpsichord, and the fourth movement’s shift to electric bass is seamless. Once more, the textural variety available on this instrument aids in observing the movement’s rhythmic activity and its ever-moving layers, each with its own timbral qualities. I wasn’t sure much was being gained by using an electric piano for the final Moderato stoico – until Harvey inserted a section of organ sound, then went in for some electronic pointillism, before coming back to the piano sound spectrum with an even more shattering final crescendo than that in Track 5.
As I reported above, you don’t need to buy this CD; Move has made it available online for anyone to hear. At the end, I was full of admiration for Harvey’s tribute to Thunberg; not that you should read anything into this sonata that the composer subtitles ‘Concerto in no need of an orchestra’ – quite understandably as the performance in both forms is an inspired solo torrent, for which any accompaniment would be a distraction. If you like, you can draw some parallel between the music’s energy, its urgent purpose and the career to date of the Swedish environmentalist who stands as a beacon in a landscape populated by time-wasters and political lick-spittles. It’s a remarkable musical work, certainly assisted on its vehement trajectory by association with Thunberg, a character whose single-mindedness and unflinching vigour for change here enjoy a high-powered salute.