Across these nine vignettes from the composer’s repertoire for grand piano, the Sydney-based Whitwell pays homage to Glass the modernist while intuiting the classical ghosts that lurk within.
If the album’s centrepiece – the six-part Metamorphosis – retains the typically tight metrical structures of the Glass score, there’s a sly nod to Debussy’s flexible focus on the possibilities of form, as Whitwell alights on the subtle wisps of harmony and fleeting rhythmic ideas and gives off the feeling of music being garnered by the wind, spun out from the keys and released to the wind again, a triumph of instinct, judgement and technique.
Elsewhere, the tone and timbre of these lush tracks have the richness of Bach or Chopin. But this is no exercise in nostalgia; Mad Rush breathes new life into old forms through Whitwell’s use of an extraordinary custom-built Stuart & Sons piano. This boasts 102 keys as opposed to the traditional 88, with more subtle gradations of tone and colour, plus vertical strings for added dynamics and sustain.
Whitwell’s range is astonishing; on the 14-minute title track she alternately pummels the keys with industrial force or strokes them with the delicacy of an insect skating the surface tension of a city pond at night.
Yet this fast/slow and loud/soft dynamic is dissolved into ever-shifting permutations, as Whitwell overlays urban claustrophobia with the ancient circadian rhythms of nature.
And there’s sublime detail in the quietest moments, as Whitwell uses the pedals to bend, suspend and fade the notes – could be the faint humming of an air conditioner or the buzzing of mosquitos. The intermittent silences play an important part too, leaving generous space for the listener to insert their own thoughts into the weft and weave of the music.
An added bonus is a pin-sharp digital recording by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Ultimo Centre; every slap and tickle of ivory keys and reverberating gut wire strings comes through with vivid clarity, as if Whitwell were performing in your living room.
Like the stark album cover of Whitwell assuming a Zen-like poise in a multi-storey car park, there’s peace at the heart of this city, like pale flowers pushing through the cracks in the concrete.
At the outset of Philip Glass’ career, one starchy traditionalist complained that Mad Rush was the sound of a grand piano falling downstairs. Equally, younger listeners, like me, attuned to Glass’ more electronic works have generally failed to investigate his solo piano. Here, Sally Whitwell not only bridges this generation gap – Mad Rush reached number three in the ARIA classical charts – but makes it redundant.
A transcendental effort, and My Album of 2011.