Rzewski is celebrated with theatricality and bravura at Bargemusic
Don’t call it a festival, call it a celebration.
The composer and pianist Fred Rzewski is in New York and Bargemusic is celebrating (their word) him with four programs of his music. The series began Wednesday night and runs through Sunday, with Rzewski and assorted musicians playing some of his most important and well-known pieces, recent compositions, and works in progress.
On Friday night, Rzewski and pianists Michael Kirkendoll and Ursula Oppens took turns on a long but powerful and thrilling program that combined one of the composer’s specialities with his best-known work. The first 90-plus minutes was music for speaking pianist. Then for the capper, Oppens played the magnum opus The People United Will Never Be Defeated!.
There is little music for speaking pianist in the repertoire, and Rzewski has produced most of it. The idea barely classifies as a genre and has no inherent formal rules, and the highly specific and constrained theatricality makes it an extraordinary compositional challenge.
But Rzewski is a rigorous, incisive thinker and excellent composer, and at their best, his works for speaking pianist are so fine that they feel as commonplace as any other music for solo piano. That is, once one adjusts to the unusual experience of a musician playing the piano while theatrically reciting.
The opening work, Dear Diary, from 2013, was not Rzewski at his best. With the composer performing, the politics of the piece were surprisingly simplistic. Rzewski usually asks questions, or bears witness, wielding a critical eye sans explicit agenda. That gives his work force.
Dear Diary is too explicit. The text is all Rzewski’s original writing, and it is an absurdist, but facile, take on capitalism, education, environmental stewardship, etc. It is both clever and irritating, with too much heavy-handed social signaling. Still, this is Rzewski, so the piece is imaginatively and well made, with the typical antiphonal approach to the voice and piano that makes this style different than a spoken art song.
One expects more from the composer, and the rest of the concert delivered at the highest level. The music was brilliant—Flowers, Marriage, and the magnificent De Profundis—and Kirkendoll’s performances of the latter two were tours de force of skill, comprehension, and energetic, intelligent theatricality.
Marriage is part of a large-scale series of pieces under the overall title of The Road (each piece is identified by a mile marker, and Marriage is mile 58). The text is adapted from Tolstoy’s novella The Kreutzer Sonata, specifically passages where Pozdnyshev is describing how he came to murder his wife, and the act itself.
Beginning with a compelling rhythm tapped out on the keyboard cover and strings, the piece moves forward with an inexorable determination that parallels the spoken part.
That text was delivered with palpable relish by Kirkendoll, full of darkly hilarious, maniacal glee over what he was doing and why. Rzewski enhances the theatricality by having the performer, in character, pause for a drink of water, which cements the feeling that not only is he playing the piece for you, but that he actually is Pozdnyshev, buttonholing you with his insanity and need for absolution. This was a scintillating experience.
Rzewski returned for the simple, lovely Flowers. He adapted the text from Little Dorrit, and the piece was written for his friend, the composer Howard Skelton, when Skelton’s wife died of cancer. The first line is “He was left alone,” which shredded the heart. From there, Rzewski proceeded to gently put it back together.
Before Kirkendoll played De Profundis, he called it “the monument of the speaking pianist repertoire.” That was no exaggeration. A substantial and moving work based on a letter Oscar Wilde’s letter from Reading jail, De Profundis combines a fine fantasy for piano with a gripping monologue.
Kirkendoll was immersed in the performance. Technically, his playing was agile and strong, and every vocal rhythm and inflection was exact. Expressively, he charted the flow of feelings and ideas in the letter, from anger and despair to a sense of hope that Wilde manages to convince himself to hold. The physicality of the piece was, through him, musically and dramatically expressive.
After this long opening set, a few in the audience departed, and missed the tremendous experience of Oppens playing The People United.
One of the great piano variation pieces in classical music, The People United is an odyssey for a post-Joyce, post-Freud world. Rzewski does the expected, stating the revolutionary song that is the theme, then reassembling it in varied ways. Beyond the motivic variations there is a deep transformation through experience. The theme returns at key moments, reflecting on the music that has come before and the new world it has made.
Oppens is the work’s great interpreter, with a second outstanding recording released last year on the Cedille label. Her technique was insecure at the start, but she hit a confident stride in the Marcato Variation 4. By the time she reached the second restatement of the theme, she was burning with a blue flame, playing with a roiling depth and sense of inevitability. Her Cadenza to Variation 27 was overpowering.
The penultimate variation is an improvisation, and her creation was quiet, harmonically and thematically probing, finished with a sublime cadence into the stirring theme.
“Celebrating Rzewski” continues through Sunday at Bargemusic. bargemusic.org