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S&H Concert Review

RZEWSKI & NOSFERATU The Warehouse, London, 7 February 2002 (PGW)


This was an extraordinary evening and, to our shame, we did not quite last the course to hear Geoff Hannan's Bubblegum or Geary Larrick's Sonata for bass drum (Dave Price) - is there any other?

Frederic Rzewski, American born in 1938, and resident in Belgium, where he is professor of composition at Liège, is a phenomenon and one all too little known or recognised in UK. He is a prodigious pianist and a prolific composer, featured in both capacities in Adrian Jack's ICA concerts and most recently heard in the Cardew Memorial Concert at South Place.

At 6 o'clock he took us travelling on Miles 49-56 of his seven-hour long composition The Road - Part 7, this excerpt comprising 100 minutes of piano playing! This is expansive, unhurrying music, which explores ever-inventive ideas to their limits and (just occasionally, e.g. in a trill study) beyond them. Most of the pieces were about ten minutes each, but the central "Too Late!" was a 35 mins fantasy which - possibly - might better have stood alone. Several were studies, some of them developed as continuous variations, and for their combination of musical and technical ideas could well find places alongside the great piano studies, seeming at first hearing to be as well balanced between those two poles as are those of Chopin, Debussy and Ligeti.

The huge scope of The Road as a whole, which Rzewski thinks of as a 'novel' in music, brings to mind gargantua such as those massive creations of Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, Ronald Stevenson and Michael Finnissy, who were not afraid to think big - not to speak of Beethoven in his Diabelli Variations. Rzewski himself draws analogies with large collections like Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words and Bach's 48 as being music intended for domestic consumption by a musician at home, 'alone in a room' with his keyboard instrument, music 'to be read (played) at a speed and duration independent of concert conventions'.

So the large audience which flocked to The Warehouse, firmly established as an essential venue for London's new music explorers, was happy to let this 8-mile journey unfold, relishing the innovations on the way, such as two studies for the percussive potentials of a shut piano - going far beyond Cage's Joyce setting of The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs for closed piano.

The final 'mile' of Part 7 of The Road uses every sound within reach - floor and piano stool as well as the Steinway itself - and he augmented the music throughout with occasional whistling, humming and simple accessories, such as crushing paper or briefly switching on a radio; nothing as demanding as Cage's piano preparations. We heard studies for left and right hand alone, probably more rewarding to master than the freakish Chopin/Godowsky circus tricks. One exploits an octatonal scale, and others work on trills and silence respectively. There was a happy blend of ingenuity and unsophistication, and the whole atmosphere generated was amiable. Rzewski's dry, clear pianism, with sparing pedal, brought to my mind Kagel and also the (very different) equally quirky approach to the instrument of Misha Alperin. Inevitably there will be recognisable Rzewski finger-prints in so vast an oeuvre, and many of those can be discovered in a CD which has had pride of place in my collection for some years, North American Ballads & Squares, including his best-known piano piece, Winsboro Cotton Mills Blues (hat ART CD 6089).

That Rzewski can think small as well as huge was well shown in the following concert by four players of Nosferatu; his attractive little Spots for variable instrumentation are miniatures contrived on a strict plan, 7 X 9 seconds each, and with a suitably costumed Joe Cutler (also responsible for sound projection) providing a gloomy BBC weather report of the day in one of them. Ivo de Greef did full justice to Rzewski's Piano Piece No 4, rumbling bass tremolos eventually disclosing a disarming folk tune disappearing in 'fistful-of-notes sonorous clouds'. Of contributions by other composers, Joe Cutler's wedding gift unaccompanied solo for Darragh Morgan (re)Gaia, which cunningly exploits open strings, deserves to be taken up by other violinists, and Grab it! by Jacob ter Veldhuis for baritone saxophone (Finn Peters), in frenetic unisono with tape-sampled shouting prisoners, was a real tour de force.

Peter Grahame Woolf


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