Astra 60. Piano works by Keith Humble, Helen Gifford, Margaret Boland, Tom Henry, Mark Pollard, Warren Burt and Lawrence Whiffin

Michael Kieran Harvey piano
Classical, New Music
Michael Kieran Harvey Collection. Move Records (MD 3357, 2012)
Reviewed by , March 1st, 2014

Melbourne’s Astra Chamber Music Society has for many years provided a cultural enclave for musical modernism, and this recording of Australian piano works is no different. All the compositions on this CD can be described as non-tonal or post-tonal, though some have fleeting moments of traditional Western harmony or even passages of free-tonal writing. Michael Kieran Harvey performs these pieces with his flawless competence and genuine love for Australian composition. The warmth and expressive range of Harvey’s playing make this a very engaging recording, even for listeners who would normally conceive of this type of music as too abstract.

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The CD is framed by two very strong works: Keith Humble’s Sonata No. 1 (1959) and Piano Sonata No. 3 (2011) by recently deceased Laurie Whiffin. Australian composers writing music in an explicitly modernist manner risk having their music perceived as self-conscious style reference, because by and large Australia still struggles to embrace the concept of art music, especially its home-grown so-called atonal music. The fact that both works escape this cultural trap is due to a musically convincing transcendence of style. In Humble’s case, the two short movements are highly expressive and characterised by lively gestures with a keen sense of harmonic colour, rhythmic interest, and register differentiation. And they sound like music for the piano, which is not surprising given that Humble was also a wonderful pianist. Similarly, Whiffin’s sonata goes well beyond an aestheticist signification of modern style. Its elaborate musical narrative carefully integrates references to 19th century French comic opera galop and fading imitations of Big Ben. Like Humble’s work, this music resonates on many levels, not the least in terms of understanding the instrument and its repertoire.

Helen Gifford’s equally expressive Three Pieces (1966) flicker and shine as the music fluctuates between gentle continuity, the occasional sudden dynamic change, and brief periods of contemplative stasis. Warren Burt’s In Memoriam Carl Ruggles: Aardvarks II: Mr Natural encounters Flakey Front! (1971) feels as lengthy as its title. It is the only piece on this CD that clearly breaks with the overall mood of abstract expressionism because of its relentless, machine-like unfolding of seemingly unmotivated dissonances. Mark Pollard’s Krebs (1983) creates many discontinuities among moments of expressive beauty. These discontinuities result from the work’s focus on the raw material (pitches, durations, articulations, dynamics). Here, the material itself largely constitutes the musical aesthetic of the piece. Marguerite Boland’s unassuming and sensuous Two Miniatures (1994) create a wonderfully friendly and uncomplicated atmosphere. This should seduce even the most hardened opponent of non-tonal music. The Piano Sonata (2006) by Tom Henry stretches out with impressive inventiveness, especially in terms of texture. It is emotionally engaging and touches its listeners with dark colours and at times deep melancholia.

This CD covers six decades of Australian piano music and celebrates the significant contribution both Michael Kieran Harvey and the Astra Chamber Music Society have made. As Michael pointed out in his recent Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address, Australian music deserves to be performed, recorded and broadcast much more often, and this Move release is a decisive step in the right direction.

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