A forgotten Aussie masterpiece, devils pelting the gluttonous and a Psychosonata – not your average piano recital.

Carriageworks, Sydney, July 19

In an opinion piece for Limelight last week the pianist Michael Kieran Harvey wrote: “In my view, Raymond Hanson has the distinction of being Australia's greatest neglected composer. Completely disinterested in fame and self-promotion, Hanson wrote over 100 opuses, but those of you reading this would probably be hard-pressed to name any. Because, statistically, you are most likely well-heeled and Eurocentric, and probably only really interested in a band of music written by dead white men from about 1700 to 1900.” Challenging words, eh?

The avowed aim of Carriageworks’s enterprising New Music Program is to refute that statement, or at least to redress the balance, and judging by the full house that crowded into one of the venue’s starker bays last Friday, contemporary music has a future, in Sydney at least.

The key work that Kieran Harvey wanted to evangelise was Raymond Hanson’s Piano Sonata, not a ‘new’ work as such (the piece occupied him from 1938 until 1963), but the music, with its echoes of Hindemith and Prokofiev, feels modern enough to earn its place. The pianist was keen to claim “forgotten masterpiece” about the piece, and on this hearing I would be inclined to agree.

The sonata was inspired by the fall of France during WWII and there’s a definite sense of oppression hanging over the substantial first movement. Hanson’s ideas are always compelling and nowhere more so than in the mournful Andante. The finale, containing, we were informed, “almost unplayable” passages, is by turns jaunty (in a gallows-bird vein), bluesy and lyrical. Kieran Harvey proved an expert guide to the work, his impressive technique able to cope with Hanson’s varied demands, yet also perfectly inside the poetry of this complex music.

The indefatigable soloist, with merely a gulp of water to sustain him, then embarked on his own Psychosonata (or Piano Sonata No 2) – one of his better works he told us in typically self-effacing manner. Originally commissioned by the Society of Australian and New Zealand Psychiatrists, the work is dedicated to the composer’s cat, coincidentally also called Psycho! A 30-minute work in three movements, it requires a prodigious skill to cope with its angular demands and widely ranging dynamic neuroses. Fortunately we were in safe hands and Kieran Harvey proceeded to take us for a compelling spin. Comparisons are odious but it had the kind of appeal of an extended Ligeti étude with frequent schizoid episodes. The composer literally sweated over his interpretation in a dazzling display of bravura pianism.

The world premiere of eight excerpts from Elliott Gyger’s Inferno (after Dante) rounded off the evening beginning with a remarkable display of pianistic imagery and simultaneous extended vocal technique – not something that one could imagine at your average Angela Hewitt recital! Kieran Harvey was our Virgil, leading us from the gates of hell (complete with screeching devilry), through Limbo, and on to witness the lustful, driven hither and thither by winds and the gluttonous being pelted with hail, rain and snow. The attentive audience were gripped throughout.

So it’s hats off to Michael Kieran Harvey for an evening that was clearly a labour of love. But maybe we should be even more grateful to Lisa Havilah, the brave hearted Director of Carriageworks and Louis Garrick, her Curator of New Music. More power to their respective elbows, say I.