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The Sonata Project

Bernadette Harvey - piano

$23   (Australian dollars)


buy at: AMC - Buywell - iTunes

The Sonata Project, the inspiration of pianist Bernadette Harvey, is an ongoing commissioning program for the creation of new large-scale compositions for solo piano. Through her performances and recordings of these works, Bernadette’s mission is being realized - to provide a platform on which to amplify the work of 21st century composers, to enlarge the number of large-scale sonatas written by women composers, and to ensure the future of the solo acoustic piano recital.

This is the first instalment of sonatas written by powerful voices on the contemporary Australian music scene. They have been financially supported by the Australia Council for the Arts and other private donations.

Aristea MellosSonata
Melody EötvösPiano Sonata no. 1
Jane StanleyPiano Sonata
Ross EdwardsSea Star Fantasy


“The Sonata Project is an outstanding initiative of Bernadette Harvey: the commissioning of women composers to write “large-scale” compositions for solo piano.”

This CD release includes three new works by Australian women that have been commissioned by Harvey (with assistance from the Australia Council for the Arts), alongside a fourth composition by Ross Edwards that had previously been premiered by Harvey (but commissioned by John Porter). The three new works have the word “sonata” in their titles and two of the composers (Melody Eötvös and Jane Stanley) address the notion of “sonata” in the annotations of their works. By contrast, Aristea Mellos only mentions in passing that her third movement is in a “quasi Rondo form”, and Ross Edwards avoids any mention of the word “sonata” in title or annotation, although he has previously written a piano sonata (No 1), performed and recorded by Harvey on her 2016 release, Mantras and Night Flowers (Tall Poppies TP220).

Certainly “Sonata Project” is a catchy name. It caught my attention when choosing a CD to review for Loudmouth. But maybe it runs the risk of creating too many expectations for what kind of work should be written under the banner. It invites one to critique the works according one’s preconceptions of the form and genre, and against works, both classical and post-classical, that identify themselves as sonatas. Then again, the stimulation of debate about such matters can only be a good thing.

The opening work of the CD, Aristea Mellos’ Sonata (2015-16) perhaps best fits the sonata bill, when considering all the contributions to the CD. It is in three contrasting movements, is more than15 minutes in duration, and it demonstrates a strong engagement with the notion of the development of motivic material. The first movement begins with a melodic pattern that permeates the texture at many points along the way. There is a main theme which begins with a four-note pattern that is developed by variation against a repeated note ostinato and sumptuous Ravel-like accompanying chords. A quieter middle section is interrupted by a high strident triplet figure, before evolving into a dramatic romantic texture. A recapitulation that is itself subjected to interesting developmental strategies brings the movement to a close. The romantic celebratory ambience seems appropriate since the composition was inspired by the composer’s Roman holiday in 2014.

The second movement, a response to the grotesque art-works found in Cardinal Spada’s Gallery, is a much darker affair. Much of the highly chromatic melodic material is either counterpointed with similar lines or accompanied by ostinati of two more adjacent notes. The movement begins sparsely but builds to a resonant climax before a return to the opening ideas.

Mellos begins her “quasi Rondo” movement 3 as a scintillating toccata that builds from a mutation of the opening melodic pattern of her first movement. This is contrasted by a brooding second section with echoes of movement 2. A chord-based fast passage follows before a variation of the opening concludes the work.

Not only is Mellos’s Sonata teeming with compositional invention, it demonstrates a flair for idiomatic piano writing and a strong sense of what might appeal greatly to a piano recital audience.

Melody Eötvös opts for a two-movement work of a slightly longer length for her Piano Sonata no. 1: The Demoiselle D’Y (2015) which is based on the horror story referred to in the title. In her annotation, Eötvös gives an account of her engagement with sonata form. Her first movement has three subject groups, a long development based mostly on different material and a short recapitulation involving only the first of the subject groups. While unconventional in approach, it is an effective structure. In particular the development section, mostly in fast metrical textures, presents the evolving thematic material over a series of chords that mimics the key changes of classical sonata development. Eötvös claims her second movement is formally less rigorous and more “fantasy-like”. Based loosely on the material of her three subject groups, it has some free noodly moments which are contrasted by strong metrical textures reminiscent of the development section of the first movement.

Jane Stanley’s Piano Sonata (2016), unlike the first two works considered here, has no programmatic underpinning. The composer’s annotation focuses on her struggle with the sonata brief and gives some insight into her decision making in reaching the final form of her piece. A feature of the four-movement work is the inclusion of an appealing short “Prelude” and “Postlude” which are identical in pitch and rhythm, but varied in subtle ways in other musical parameters (tempo, dynamics etc.). These frame the two main “movements” of the work. The first is long (11 minutes duration) and consists of a series of textural ideas. Each one is stated and then developed minimally for a period before moving onto the next. As there here is no strong aural connection between the ideas, the movement appears somewhat rambling in structure. By contrast the second movement (7 minutes duration) seems unified by a series of different rapid repeated notes and other repetitive ideas (tremolos, for example).

The last of the four works, Sea Star Fantasy (2015) is a two-movement structure, typical of Ross Edwards, with a slow movement (containing a more animated central section) which is then followed by a quick dance-like movement, itself with slower interludes. It could be thought of as a sonata structure without a sonata-form first movement. It is not “large-scale” (only 8.5 minutes total duration) and not really virtuosic (although the second movement has some tricky decorative elements). I am a great admirer of Ross Edwards’ artistic vision and consummate compositional craftsmanship, but cannot see how this piece fits into Bernadette Harvey’s “sonata project” concept.

As for the performance of all the works, it is hard to find any fault with Bernadette Harvey’s playing, both technically and interpretatively. It was pleasure to hear her highly nuanced readings of these impressive new large-scale piano works.

© Michael Hannan
February 2018,

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 TP (1-901)



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