In intermission conversation at Michael Kieran Harvey’s U.S. debut recital the name of Glenn Gould was often heard, and with reason. Not since the heyday of the late flamboyant Canadian had a pianist come forward with such extraordinary technique combined with so vibrant a gift for stirring up controversy. Like him or not — both factions were represented — it had to be one of the most stimulating debut recitals within anyone’s memory.
The Australia-born Harvey, 33, was co-winner at last December’s Ivo Pogorelich Piano Competition at Ambassador, sharing with Edith Chen a $ 150,000 cash prize and a clutch of concert and recording dates.
It was obvious then, and obvious again on Thursday night, that among Harvey’s gifts as a pianist the quality of bravery ranked high, in his choice of difficult contemporary works along with the standard knucklebusters.
Most memorable, then as now, was a sonata by Australia’s Carl Vine, 40, 15 minutes of piano bedazzlement combined with a profound melodic sense.
Not far behind was a work by Harvey himself, titled “Toccata DNA,” a spectacular display piece influenced, according to the pianist, by Bach and the pounding anguish of the Berlin noise band “Einsturzende Neubauten.”
It was in the standard works that Harvey stirred up both interest and controversy: a set of Liszt etudes in which No. 2 was made to turn up unexpectedly in the middle of No. 1; Chopin’s B-minor Sonata played with such overheated expression as to suggest a parody; a Bach Toccata gentled down to a purring nocturnal tone-poem.
Willful it sometimes was, yet — and this is where the similarity to Gould works to the advantage of both pianists — there was a quality of mind at work here, an eagerness to rethink certain givens in the repertory.
Among the spate of piano-competition winners over the past several decades, most of them have quickly fizzled, mainly because for all their technique they just weren’t interesting.
At least at the start of his worldwide career, Michael Kieran Harvey has sidestepped that curse.
This was one hell of an interesting concert.