Inferno: The piano music of Elliot Gyger

Michael Kieran Harvey
Classical, New Music
Move Records MD 3376
Reviewed by , November 1st, 2014

Inferno (2013) is the virtuosic amalgamation of two of Australia’s foremost musicians, composer Elliot Gyger and performer Michael Kieran Harvey, in an hour-long cycle for solo piano, arising from Dante’s journey through the nine circles of Hell. Powerfully expressive musical gestures within uncompromising structures create “Lisztean tableaux of virtuosity and damnation” in a language characteristic of post-war avant-garde figures Messiaen, Carter, Ligeti and Birtwistle.

Nine etudes travel the nine circles of Hell by progressively moving through tonally distinct subsets, contracting and expanding down the piano’s range. Four interludes run the rivers “Acheron (river of water)” with cascades of dilated notes; “Styx (the river of mud)” by thick spluttering chords; “Phlegethon (the river of boiling blood)” through distending arpeggio patterns, and “Cocytus (the river of ice)” as an harmonic summation of the rivers by way of sustained chords.

Composer Elliott Gyger

Composer Elliott Gyger

The first etude is a boundless, consonant ringing, a lesser heaven for the virtuous unbaptized. Etude II, a gusty toccata that sees each hand blustered back and fourth embodying the restless violent storm that condemns the lustful. Etude III counters punctual interlocking chord clusters that shower hail, rain and snow in a deluge on the gluttonous. Etude IV reflects the contrasting avaricious and prodigal sinners with rolling, undulant rhythms.

The fifth etude takes place on the swampy waters of the river Styx, where the wrathful struggle on the surface as the sullen laze gurgling beneath the murky water. It is masterfully depicted in a barcarolle of three overlapping layers. The flaming tombs of the heretics, Etude VI, is a study confining and contrasting heretical sects as tonal sets. Etude VII is another toccata constructed around a fixed phrase moving through the three circles of violence: rapid scales in contrary motion portray the boiling river of blood in which tyrants and murderers are immersed at a level commensurate with their sins; the profligates crash into gnarled thorny limbs as they run from ferocious dogs in the stark forest of the metamorphosed suicides and as punishment for violence against God, sputtering notes hurriedly run along the desert of burning sands.

Etude VIII is the longest and most impressive of the etudes as it draws from features of the previous pieces in order to depict the multifarious faces of fraud, developing them in the form of a climactic set of variations. Finally, from the thunderous first note of Etude IX, the ninth circle of Hell encapsulates the traitorous bottom two octaves of the keyboard in stasis in everlasting ice. The conclusive movement, the stars, is Gyger’s transcendental recompense for the hard fought passage of both performer and listener as Dante and Virgil emerge just before dawn beneath a sky studded with stars.

Pianist Michael Keiran Harvey

Pianist Michael Keiran Harvey

Inferno is a divinely demanding work executed by a masterful interpreter of state-of-the-art piano music. Such an uncompromising compositional approach has the potential to deter some audiences, however both the force of Dante’s imagery and the sheer boldness of the playing compel all ye who enter here.

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