Music / Notes & Observations

Music Review: Indistinguishable from magic: why does music work?

By Nicholas M Tolhurst

In the past two weeks Melbourne has been treated to three concerts featuring that beast of the concert hall, the piano. Pianists ancient and modern came out in droves for Murray Perahia’s recital at the Melbourne Recital Centre (MRC) on 4 October. Perahia is justly acclaimed as a great performer. He is reputed to play only works up to Brahms and not beyond, which could appear churlish, except he plays Bach to Brahms so magnificently, he can be excused. Besides, there are plenty of young guns around to tackle the moderns and contemporaries.


Piano (Photo credit: me5otron)

In the MRC, Perahia playing Bach was a wonder. Perahia’s left hand really came through and, watching from way up back where the sound is great and the piano gleams (such a big, improbable box of tricks) I thought there were two of him on the piano stool. Bach ‘accompaniments’ are never just accompaniments, they are independent lines. It was magic to hear every note coming through, even the rookie bum note he played at the end of one section of the French Suite. Just proves you must never take your mind off any note when performing Bach. A pianist neither ancient or modern, but of middling years told me at interval that the prominent left hand sound is a feature of the MRC itself (and by implication not always a ‘good thing’). I prefer to think Murray meant every bit of it.

He followed the Bach French Suite BWV 815 with Beethoven’s Op 57 No. 23, the ‘Appassionata’. I though it was rather a subdued reading, wonderfully so. Listening to Beethoven sonatas and chamber music is like being part of an extraordinary conversation; of being in the present of a great storyteller. It’s not that his music conjures up images, it’s more there is a real sense of ideas being put forward and pursued, not always to their logical conclusion (who doesn’t love surprises).

Some of organising principles are the structure, the sonata form or other forms Beethoven is working with (or against). I find it hard to articulate how music in Beethoven conveys the sense of ‘idea’ when words are not part of the expression. Perahia gave us his version of the Appassionata for that night and fully demonstrated how he is a ‘master of colour’. You read that sort of thing in his publicity, but he does have an extraordinary range of tone and articulation and he seems to choose it with an intelligence that superimposes a narrative of his own over the structure and black dots that are the score itself.

Perahia’s playing of Schumann and Chopin gave us the fireworks, thrills and the risks we were hoping for as well. Some of the risks didn’t work, but the music was the better for him taking them. All through his playing he showed us why the pieces he gave us ‘worked’ as music. He found threads of narrative through tone and articulation and tempo decisions that made the music make sense to us at a quite visceral level. In a world where any American audience leaps to its feet to a standing ovation (and Australian audiences seem more and more ready to do so) Perahia deserved his ovations that night.

The week before, the Arcko Symphonic Project presented another concert under the indefatigable baton of Timothy Phillips. Only two weeks before that he had given us a magical string concert at the Fitzroy Town Hall Reading Room. This time he gave us four relatively new Australian works for and with piano and a large mixed band.

I had a mixed response. The hero piece for the piano was Particle Zoo II by Kate Neal (2010 revised 2013). The pianist was Joy Lee, one of Arcko’s preferred piano soloists and a champion of the works of Larry Sitsky, her teacher. Joy Lee is a cool operator at the keyboard and tackled Neal’s work with assurance. The piano part is quite florid and, I’m told, hard work (it didn’t look it in Lee’s hands). But the composer never connected the piano with the rest of the orchestra. Nor were the two elements they antagonists, they just happened to be playing at the same time with no apparent connection.

The instrumentalists were doomed to playing curlicues around the note C over a faintly demented tick-tock rhythm. The effect was Leroy Anderson on acid. There were occasional downward unison swoops that sounded quite charmingly Arabic. It’s not clear why they were there. I would have preferred to hear the piano entirely by itself. I guess the atomistic quality of the instrumental writing was ‘about’ particles, but overall the piece lacked coherence and did not ‘work’ for me.

One piece—Icy Disintegration by Annie Hsieh (2010)—did work. It had a piano in the mix, played this time by Arcko regular Peter Dumsday. The work is very programmatic: it’s basically about the formation and disintegration of a large iceberg. I guess it was effective in that regard, but the visual association was not needed, as the sense of ongoing drama and narrative through the work was hugely engaging. The music itself has its lineage in Mahler and Richard Strauss in the way Hsieh organised parcels of sound in slow shifts building to a very effective climax.

I could well imagine it being used as a dance score. It triggered my thinking about what makes a piece of music ‘work’, especially when it is not written to a known structure, like sonata form or four-bar blues? All the elements of music—texture, colour, density, melody, silence, tempo and more—need to be considered. Like film, music only exists in time. Unlike film, music doesn’t have images and words (settings of text aside) to hook our attention onto, to give us things to remember and relate back to, as we do with a film as it unfolds over time. Yet our ears ‘hook’ onto information in music (as organised sound) and I wish more people would talk about what this is for them as listeners.

The other two pieces in this Arcko concert didn’t work for me. They wandered around without a sense of ongoing narrative. However, someone has to give new works a go and I applaud Timothy Phillips and the legion of ‘new musicians’ in Melbourne who are out there bringing fresh insights into music into our lives.

Some very fresh insights into Ligeti, Rachmaninoff and Beethoven were indeed given in a recital on 11 November by Peter Dumsday and Matt Brown at 45 Downstairs. Called ‘Stillness & Movement’ this was a recital for piano and ‘electronic destruction’ (from Matt Brown). Basically Peter Dumsday played a selection of works and Matt Brown processed them through some very lively speakers around the venue and it mostly worked incredibly well.

You may ask why would you want to fiddle with Ligeti or Rachmaninoff and, well, to some degree you had to be there. Matt Brown filtered echoes and ‘memories’ of the pieces as played on the piano so they came back as glosses on what we had just heard. It was very sensitive and added a real-time layer of commentary onto the narrative of the pieces. They did it in the Fourteenth Century, layering new music over old, so why not 700 years later?

Peter Dumsday wrote a new work Stillness & Movement for this recital. It was a pianist’s piece, very gestural, like choreography for the hands (as lots of fine keyboard music really is). The short phrases gave Matt Brown the room to build his own responses to the sound. The piece travelled well to its conclusion with some lovely, visceral moments.

Matt Brown gave a premiere performance of his own work All That Can Save You, wherein he generated vocal sounds, which he processed in great swirls and loops, occasionally topping up the information with a little more voice work. It was very effective and my ears hooked onto it. But it did remind me terribly of the soundscape for the stargate scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I guess I may have been spoiled by that film (which I must have seen 23 times by now) for anything relatively trippy like Matt Brown’s piece just takes me back to Kubrick. Sorry Matt.

Ligeti, a composer much featured in this recital, took Kubrick to court for messing around with his Lux Aeterna, and won. Dumsday and Brown didn’t mess with Ligeti. Peter Dumsday skilfully negotiated three of Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata and his Etude 6: Automne a Varsovie. Matt Brown’s overlays were intelligent, never overtaking the piano and truly adding a new voice. They certainly were not destructive—I think the two performers were being a bit coy putting that in the recital title.

The Beethoven ‘Moonlight’ sonata (Op 27, No 2) didn’t work as well. I wonder if Matt Brown was a little awed by it, for his interpolations and glosses were understated except in the final movement, where there was a reasonable approximation of Napoleon’s assault on Vienna. Corny music schoolbook images of a distressed Beethoven stuffing paper in his ears to block out the sound of cannons came to mind. I concede these thoughts were unworthy.

I’m afraid I have no worthy thoughts about Michael Kieran Harvey’s Piano Sonata No 1, which Peter Dumsday performed powerfully. I found there was very little going on apart from strenuous technical attacks and redoubling of the same. MHK’s notes advise this work was written in anger and sorrow over the world’s estate, but I’m not convinced that I need to experience inchoate distress coming out of a piano when I too, can switch on the TV news. I didn’t get a sense of narrative coming through the sound and, unfortunately, Matt Brown did not lend his talents to this work.

The past two weeks have seen the piano given a right old going over, showing what an extraordinary piece of technology it is. I still have in my mind’s eye, the sight of Perahia sitting coolly at one end of the great gleaming Steinway monster in the MRC and thinking, how, where does he get that sound? Clarke’s Law sort of applies here: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Murray Perahia plus piano was magic.


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