Peter Dumsday: Ultra-Romantic

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The view from Kew. You can’t see them very well, but the fruit bats are stepping out for the evening.

Throughout 2015 the virtuosic Peter Dumsday will be exploring the piano sonatas of Aleksandr Skryabin. Of the entire romantic repertoire, this body of work has had perhaps the greatest influence upon twentieth-century music. Skryabin’s later works explore an almost axiomatically-founded harmonic world with an imaginative gift for texture. His earliest sonatas, composed in the early 1890s, show him prodding the boundaries of tonal harmony. In his first programme of the Ascent series, Dumsday separated Skryabin’s first two sonatas with the Bagatelles of that other great alternative to Wagner, Béla Bartók. At the centre of the programme, destroying and recreating the romantic gestures surrounding it, was Australian composer Helen Gifford’s Shiva the auspicious one.

The Stuart & Sons studio grand piano. Note the extended range, fourth pedal and striking grain of the sassafras timber.
The Stuart & Sons studio grand piano. Note the extended range, fourth pedal and striking grain of the sassafras timber.

Dumsday followed in the footsteps of Melbourne’s Chamber Made Opera in performing within a domestic setting rather than a concert hall. While this is always refreshing for the audience, the real draw card to Tony and Fiona’s remarkable modernist home in Kew was their Stuart & Sons studio grand piano. The banded, blond-wood piano has an extended range and a fourth pedal that brings the hammers closer to the strings for softer playing. The instrument is also not cross-strung allowing, so the theory goes, for a more sustained, singing tone. The silvery treble was particularly noticeable in the first Scriabin sonata, while the end of the Bartok Bagatelles showed off a growling bass.

I must confess that I am eminently unqualified to review this show. First of all I rode to the concert and the enormous hill on Studley Park Road delayed my arrival, meaning that I missed the beginning of the Allegro con fuoco of Scriabin’s first sonata. Then, as Dumsday ventured into the pensive depths of the final Funebre movement, my phone rang at top volume and, startled, I leapt through the nearest door, which proceeded to slam behind me. Cowering in shame behind a garden wall, I missed the applause at the end of the movement and had to sit out the first bracket of Bartók Bagatelles.

Even from my vantage point by a water feature, I could tell that Dumsday’s focus and clarity came to the fore in Bartók’s miniatures. Dumsday brought out a humour in the sprightly Allegretto molto capriccioso too often missed. The highlight of the concert was by far Skryabin’s second sonata, and not just because I heard all of it. From the opening questioning phrases to the andante movement’s glittering, cascading finish (thank you Stuart & Sons!), Dumsday exerted breathtaking control and craft. The Presto gave Dumsday a chance to display what he sees as the key to Skryabin’s music: An especially dextrous left hand; the result of an injury sustained two years before the composition of the second sonata that required the composer to focus exclusively on left-hand technique. In the middle of all this, Gifford’s Shiva stood as a reminder that this tradition of bold, demanding piano music is alive and well today. I’m looking forward to following Dumsday down the Skryabin rabbit-hole over the next twelve months.

Peter Dumsday
Ascent concert series
Concert 1: Ultra-romantic
A private location, shh.
9 December, 2014

Programme: Skryabin, Sonata no. 1 in F minor, Op. 6; Bartók, Bagatelles, Op. 6; Helen Gifford, Shiva the auspicious one; Skryabin, Sonata no. 2 (Sonata-Fantasy) in G-sharp minor, Op. 23.

Partial Durations is a RealTime/Matthew Lorenzon joint project.

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