Shoeless Fred Rzewski shows power and truth at Roulette
Before he played his Four Pieces at Roulette on Thursday night, Fred Rzewski mentioned that pianists tend to play another one of his piano compositions, The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, more frequently, that it’s “a little popular.” Understandably, because The People United is a masterpiece of the piano literature.
It is also a gripping and viscerally expressive work that can be described as political music, and Rzewski is most commonly known as a political composer. Fair enough, and clear enough in his other best-known compositions, Attica and Coming Together, masterpieces as well. But they are masterpieces not for what they say but how they are made: Rzewski is no propagandist like Hans Eisler; he’s not didactic and expresses no ideology in these works other than the value of bearing witness to things that would otherwise be ignored and forgotten.
And although he has been loosely associated with minimalism, Rzewski is a refreshingly old-school composer who uses counterpoint, harmony and form. That he uses dissonance means he also uses tonality. He’s also an excellent pianist, and his piano music makes full use of the instrument and of how players can coordinate ten fingers, two hands, two feet, and the occasional forearm shiver.
His playing is old-school too in the way he blends pulse, tempo and rhythm together and ignores robotic coordination of the two hands when there’s an expressive purpose to fulfill. He also slipped his shoes off, explaining that’s how he plays at home.
Rzewski opened the concert with a new piece, written from 2012 – 2013, titled Dreams, the name coming from the Kurosawa film. What he played, in four sections, is the first half of a diptych that will be premiered in full in 2015.
In many ways and in the most positive sense, the music sounds like Ives: intellectually dense, emotionally expressive, the textures move rapidly and abruptly between complex activity and introverted repose, always with poise and assurance. There is a mix of the abstract and the homespun. Because Rzewski’s pianism is so fine, there are elements deeply embedded in the keyboard tradition, including the octave tremolos and grand runs up and down that open the piece.
The music often sounds highly improvisatory even when fully notated—he’s a formidable improviser and the third section, “Mensch,” includes an optional improvised cadenza—with a completely idiomatic quality. The most expressionistic passages are centered around a core of compositional ideas, an extension of the classical tradition.
Dreams is constantly modulating in one way or another, the phrases buffeted by chords and counterpoint, snapping between broad changes of tone and mood. The third section has a skeletal feel, the bones of ragtime with small bits of connective tissue. The counterpoint and harmonic motion under the spare melody, and Rzewski’s playing, made for a poignant sound.
The final section is aggressive. Rzewski plays piano with exceedingly sharp clarity and a physical power that is equalled only by Cecil Taylor. That, and the constant sense that there is purpose behind every note on the paper and under the fingers, gives his playing rare force.
Four Pieces from 1977 is a modern take on the Beethoven model of a sonata, in four movements that closely correspond to opener, scherzo, minuet-and-trio, and a rondo-type finale. And what the notes say together is colored with Beethoven, especially the opening phrases of the first movement, which have hints of the “Les Adieux”, “Pastorale” and “Hammerklavier” sonatas.
The piece begins with a simple, elegant phrase—Rzewski is a fine tunesmith—played in straight rhythm subsumed in transitional textures and parsed through constant variations. At times, it speaks clearly and briefly in a middle voice, at others, the notes are redirected across the range of the keyboard. Then there are brief moments across all the movements where the theme coalesces out of a riot of activity, yoked to a strong rhythm and supported by a rich and powerfully satisfying descending cadence.
These are like islands in a vast ocean, and they are completely thrilling, the epitome of the finest compositions—signs that despite every conflict, the music, the musician, and the audience, will find their way home again, whole and wholly transformed.
Rzewski seemed a little embarrassed by the standing ovation that followed, but returned the favor with a brief story and encore. The pianist Anthony de Mare has commissioned arrangements of Stephen Sondheim songs from various composers, and had asked Rzewski’s teacher, Milton Babbit, to work on I’m Still Here. Babbit died before the task was done, and Rzewski finished the song. Despite the guffaws from the audience who didn’t get that Sondheim really is hip, the result is a terrific little romantic fantasia, mixing atonality and extended tonal harmonies, with a free take on the melody. It could be by Liszt, and it’s all Rzewski.
At the end, he almost forgot to put his shoes back on.