Rzewski: Piano Works, 1975-99

COMPOSERS: Rzewski
LABELS: Nonesuch
WORKS: Piano Works, 1975-99
PERFORMER: Frederic Rzewski (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 7559-79623-2
At 64, Frederic Rzewski has long operated outside the classical music mainstream, while at the same time revitalising and redirecting the great composer-pianist tradition towards places Beethoven and Liszt could not have imagined yet perhaps would have understood. Rzewski began his career as a formidable new-music pianist who could (and still can) effortlessly negotiate the toughest Boulez, Stockhausen and Cage scores. It was while working with the improvising collective Musica Elettronica Viva in the late Sixties Rzewski found his creative voice. More often than not, his subsequent compositions reflected his strong interest in left-wing politics, with titles and themes that drew attention to topics and stories rooted in social realism. Such issues provide a subtext that sets Rzewski’s imagination ablaze. European Classical and Romantic traditions inform the grounding of his idiomatic keyboard deployment, laced with prickly dissonant aggregates, sudden, irrational shifts in style, half-remembered folksongs and extended techniques like lid-slamming and foot-stomping that always sound organic, never calculated.

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Improvisation is central to Rzewski’s aesthetic on several levels. The premise behind this seven-disc retrospective is to preserve fresh, unfettered performances, with minimal editing. All 63 minutes’ worth of his 36 variations on ‘The People United Will Never Be Defeated’, for instance, were captured in a single, uninterrupted take, and the music’s cumulative force, together with the pianist’s virtuosic dynamism and dazzling improvised cadenza, hits home to more powerful effect than in the composer’s now-deleted 1986 recording on Hat Art. By contrast, Rzewski takes slower, softer-edged routes through the Piano Sonata and Four North American Ballads than his younger self. The winding compositional paths of The Road unfold over a vaster canvas and more leisurely time-scale, as the first four of eight projected sections bear out. De profundis incorporates Oscar Wilde’s harrowing letter from Reading Gaol to Lord Alfred Douglas, integrating spoken text and music to the point where one cannot exist without the other. Other pianists, such as Marc-André Hamelin (Hyperion) and Paul Jacobs (Nonesuch), have recorded Rzewski with equal aplomb and authority. Yet the elemental fervency and personal force of Rzewski’s pianism are imposingly captured by the ample, close-up engineering, and the booklet annotations are ideal.