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Frederic Rzewski: Rzewski Plays Rzewski – Piano works 1975-1999

Frederic Rzewski, composer, experimenter, improviser and provocateur, calls the music found on his new seven-CD Nonesuch retrospective, Rzewski Plays Rzewski: Piano Works, 1975-1999, “traditional” music. This is a more radical statement than it might at first seem.

Most contemporary composers embrace movements that deny that classical music has a past. Serialism, neoromanticism and minimalism each in their own way aspire to sweep away what has come before rather than build upon it. Great works of centuries ago become sites for reference rather than springboards for invention. Occasionally, composers figure out how to reconcile their systems and their antecedents to create something brilliant; too often, they do not, creating music related to nothing, including its audience.

Rzewski rejects the contemporary rejection of the past. He undertakes daring experiments that show an awareness of what has come before. His structures exist to serve his musical ideas, not the other way around. He uses extreme compositional techniques not for the sake of technique but for the music. He subscribes to no dogma but that artistic expression is paramount. Musicians have been doing this for generations, and Rzewski sees no reason to change their goals even as he radically changes their methods. And this Nonesuch survey shows us all how he does it.

Most of the works here find Rzewski meeting tradition head-on and making it his own. Prominent among these is The Road, which is only half-finished but nevertheless takes up two CDs with its first four parts. Rzewski likens this work to both epic Russian novels and Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, and he manages the feat of crafting a loose musical narrative in which each episode is characterful and, as the composer intended, can stand on its own as both an event and an etude. “Mile 8” of the first part stands out as a dazzling, draining journey from headlong exuberance into balmlike solitude that also makes a fit culmination of that particular journey.

The second and fourth parts of The Road make especially deft use of “nonpianistic” techniques like having the performer whistle, grunt and use noisemakers of various kinds, fitting them seamlessly into the musical and emotional logic of the piece. “De Profundis,” too, a recitation of excerpts from Oscar Wilde’s letters from jail with piano accompaniment, makes striking use of the pianist’s scored hyperventilation, whistling and scatting in conflict with relatively simple, bare music.

The first movement of Rzewski’s piano sonata, which modifies the traditional sonata-allegro form into what might be called a “diminishing exposition” form, as every repeat of the opening section is half as long as its predecessor; it gathers in children’s tunes like “Three Blind Mice” and “Ring Around the Rosy” and dismantles them with creeping atonality, while the diminishing exposition fuels the sense of hopelessness still further with its relentless contraction.

A few of these works find him in a more populist vein. For example, the North American ballads exploit the resonance of their protest-song themes, from the loose grace of “Down by the Riverside” to the metallic pounding that does battle with the “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues.” Rzewski helps himself out immeasurably in the latter, as throughout the set, with his playing; here he conjures a timbre so harsh and ringing you can hear the gin thrashing.

Rzewski united these two strains of his oeuvre in “36 Variations on ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated.'” In doing so, he produced a masterpiece. The work’s carefully planned, deep-rooted structure never gets in the way of musical drama but rather fuels it. The full range of Rzewski’s invention is on display here. Frank, affecting tonal lyricism works alongside unmoored atonality and ambiguous yet rich polytonality. Inward brooding bumps up against bold rips up and down the keyboard. Every possible avenue of variation is explored thoroughly, and five thematic characters are introduced. But the structure unites the diversity and keeps it pointed at the goal: a crowning improvised cadenza-in the 18th century, all cadenzas were improvised-and a triumphant statement of the original theme, whose message is now proven by what has come before.

Rzewski’s piano works are consistently jarring and moving and exhilarating. It seems clear that, soon, historically aware young composers will be studying Rzewski.

Originally Published