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Music Reviews : Piano Competition Winner Harvey Returns to Pasadena

October 15, 1994|DANIEL CARIAGA | TIMES MUSIC WRITER

Before he began the opening Liszt group at his Ambassador Auditorium recital, Thursday night, Michael Kieran Harvey sat down at the German Steinway and improvised for a couple of minutes. Although such warm-ups used to be standard practice, half a century and more ago, Harvey's inspired noodling must have startled the large audience gathered in the Pasadena hall for his official U.S. debut performance.

As it turned out, this was only the first of many surprises in a generous, if not comprehensive, program. The major upset was that the 33-year-old Harvey, the insider's favorite at the 1993 Ivo Pogorelich International Piano Competition held at Ambassador, and then the controversial co-winner of first prize, gave an impressive but disappointing recital.

So disappointing that a handful of cognoscenti , some of whom had admired the Australian pianist during the competition, last December, voted with their feet when intermission arrived.

Make no mistake: This pianist deserved his Gold Medal, and still commands respect. He plays the instrument with a stunning virtuosity and stamina, a poet's insights and abundant musical/mechanical resources. He makes music as effortlessly as he breathes.

Nevertheless, self-indulgence, glibness and a certain disconnection from his listeners seemed to mark much of this event. A quick--hopefully, short-term--assessment of his present state is that he thinks too much, feels not strongly enough and shares too little.

Always fleet, sometimes light to a fault, Harvey's digitality remains a wonder. He literally flies over the keyboard, drops few if any notes, specializes, admirably, more in softness than loudness, yet can produce plenty of power when that is needed. His tone, even in the most complex of convoluted passages, remains pure and edgeless.

Interpretively, he seems to choose standoffishness in almost everything he plays. His Bach, the F-sharp Toccata, became surprisingly moony, but not personal. His fascinating but quirky playing of Chopin's B-minor Sonata--sometimes he seems to stop dead between musical sentences--had beauties galore, but those moments were interspersed with weirdnesses.

What Harvey played most convincingly was the raft of 20th-Century pieces he sprinkled through this agenda: his own, very engaging, "Toccata DNA," Stravinsky's Three Movements from "Petrushka," Messiaen's "Ile de feu," I and II, and Carl Vine's quarter-hour Sonata (1990), with which Harvey had made a great impression last December. On all of these he lavished myriad colors and an irresistible continuity.

At the end, when 10:30 approached, he offered two encores: Mark Pollard's "Carillon for Sacha" and Messiaen's Prelude No. 1, "The Dove."

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