NEW YORK, NY.-
Renowned composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski, who died last year, was celebrated for the committed nature of his leftist politics as well as his music.
On the political front, he tended to walk the walk whether writing a series of variations based on a Chilean workers anthem (in The People United Will Never Be Defeated), or undermining the high-toned trappings of contemporary classical culture by playing at a fish market. He also distributed his scores online, free for any player to peruse.
He could also be harsh and exacting in his artistic judgments. But one thing Rzewski wasnt known for were capital-R Romantic gestures. So when pianist Lisa Moore introduced one of Rzewskis final pieces at a Bang on the Can festival at Mass MoCA last year, murmurs of surprise were audible in the crowd as she related that the work was a 60th birthday gift one commissioned from Rzewski by Moores husband, composer and educator Martin Bresnick. (Bresnick has also mentored multiple artists in the Bang on a Can universe.)
Asking this artist to write something for your wifes birthday? Risky (if inspired). Yet as Moore proceeded to play the 15-minute Amoramaro, it all started to make sense. There were prickly, modernist shards familiar from other Rzewski pieces, though also darts of disarming warmth. Reviewing that premiere, I wrote that the composition deserved an official recording from Moore.
Now we have it. Amoramaro is one of five items on Moores new album, Frederic Rzewski: No Place to Go but Around, released on the Cantaloupe label in June.
Its like an old man looking back over his musical life, Moore said of Amoramaro, in a phone interview from her home in New Haven, Connecticut. That musical range of reference includes backward glances at motifs from earlier efforts, as well as what Moore calls sort of Beethovian quotes. Also present, to my ear, in the aesthetic mixing bowl: Rzewskis youthful experience as an early interpreter of Karlheinz Stockhausens experimental piano music.
The lushness of some of its chords, though, is what strikes me most forcefully on repeat listens. And that is thanks in part to Moores overall approach to Rzewski, which often allows for a greater range of emotion than other interpreters permit, including the composer.
Moore, however, said Rzewskis instructions at the top of his handwritten score were frank about the degree of freedom others could bring to the music: Love has no laws; therefore dynamics, rhythms, anything can be changed at will!
He had a very free attitude in that way, Moore said. (She knows from experience, having played Rzewskis music in front of him, as a member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, in the early 1990s.)
In an interview, Bresnick described an extensive and enjoyable back-and-forth with Rzewski during the drafting process, including about what kind of ending the piece should have. Im a composer, too and I was surprised that he wanted such a thing, Bresnick said. I wanted to say something but I didnt want to overdetermine it, so I finally said to him: There are endings in Chekhov and other great writers where its the end of the story but we know that the story goes on.
For Bresnick, the composers solution is particularly pleasing. It is an ending, but it is not the end, Bresnick said.
When playing her 60th birthday present, Moore found herself luxuriating in Rzewskis invitation to change dynamics and rhythms at will. If you let things resolve, if you let the harmonies really sit, the next harmony that comes in so often is something that changes like a kaleidoscope, she said. Its just shifting and changing the mode. Its really, really clever.
Theres something similarly clever about the balance of Moores new album. The title track, No Place to Go but Around, is an expansive, early Rzewski effort, from 1974 (right before The People United). The only other official recording is Rzewskis available on an obscure vinyl release from the late-1970s.
On that LP, Rzewskis composition shared space with his interpretations of piano works by Hanns Eisler and Anthony Braxton. While the composers version of No Place to Go offered some stark interpolations of the Italian labor movement song Bandiera Rossa another political reference Moores rendition truly lets that borrowed tune spill forth, toward the end of the 12th minute.
Moore said that her take was a considered attempt to underline the compositions beauty, adding: I also want people to be invited in and not pushed away.
That inviting quality of Moores album extends to her latest performance of Coming Together, one of Rzewskis most well-known contributions to the modern repertoire. Its text comes from a letter by the Attica prison uprising leader Sam Melville. But unlike some ceaselessly galvanic performances of this Minimalist-tinged composition, Moores solo voice-and-piano approach takes dramatic notice of references to lovers emotions in times of crisis that are present in the literary source material. (Moore is a practiced hand at Rzewskis work for singing or speaking pianists, having recorded his setting of Oscar Wildes De Profundis.)
Just as striking is her take on the rarely heard To His Coy Mistress, a setting of Andrew Marvells poem from the 17th century. Moores playing is meticulous when it comes to the compact three-act structure of the music (and its text); she hits the gas with a controlled force, just before singing the line But at my back I always hear/Times winged chariot hurrying near. Later on, the word embrace triggers a newly reflective mode.
So is this a covert Rzewski for Lovers album? In an email, Moore wrote: I did, in fact, consciously think about bringing the more romantic side of Rzewskis music out, a sort of gentler approach because its there, in the material and often just beneath the surface. (Like him he was a mensch behind all his bluster.)
And though the composer was famous for his political stands, Moores interpretations help emphasize these works elusiveness. In his music he often disguises and veils the politics in a way I quite admire, she said. Its not hitting you over the head with the obvious. Its woven in to a song or a letter and its up to you to kind of grasp what the meaning is.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times