Review: Stalin’s Piano

From its opening bars set to on-screen footage of Berthold Brecht at the 1947 House Un-American Activities Committee hearing, Stalin’s Piano zeroes in on the tensions between art and politics, reminding the audience that we are not immune to the horrors of history.

Conceived for virtuoso pianist Sonya Lifschitz by Australian composer Robert Davidson, the work is comprised of a set of 19 ‘voice portraits’ of visionary artists and political luminaries, rendered through the setting of archival video footage to diverse forms of piano accompaniment.

Through clever and sensitive interplays of harmony, tone, timing shifts and to-the-millisecond accuracy, Lifschitz’ piano reveals and emphasises the normally unnoticed melodies exhibited in each subject’s speech. This intriguing effect, combined with the footage often being chopped up and redeployed as loops and samples, hints at sounds associated with techno and other forms of electronic music.

While not specifically linked by a narrative thread, as a set the portraits speak to an expansive collection of themes, from the origins and impact of art to the power plays of politicians and despots. Whether it is artists responding to the zeitgeist of various decades, architects shaping the spaces we inhabit, or world leaders launching horrific conflicts that still echo in the global psyche, there is plenty of meaning to be drawn from the offering.

Lifschitz is a wonderful pianist and her instrument weaves in and out of the portraits as the piece’s bedrock, at times functioning as an understated backdrop to the on-screen material, and at other times blazing beautifully to the fore. She also contributes vocal narration to several of the portraits, including that of Ai Weiwei and Mao Zedong, as well as to the work’s central depiction of Maria Yudina and Joseph Stalin.

As Lifschitz recently told The Adelaide Review, in performing Stalin’s Piano she has to grasp the psychology of the speakers and totally inhabit the work — and it shows. Beyond meeting the sheer technical challenge of executing notes timed perfectly to the syllables of recorded speech, Lifschitz enriches the iconic recordings and imbues them with firm relevance to today’s global political environment.

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