Bobby Mitchell Plays Late Rzewski


RZEWSKI: Dreams: No. 7, Ruins; No. 8, Wake Up. War Songs. Winter Nights. Saints and Sinners / Bobby Mitchell, pianist / Naxos 8.559928

As Bill McLaughlin, host of the former award-winning radio show Saint Paul Sunday, once described him, Frederic Rzewski was “an interesting creature.” Part saint and part devil, an avowed Communist and a man who separated from his wife but never divorced her, had a different female companion for his last 20 years yet continually hit up on women, Rzewski had one of the most formidable piano techniques of any composer of any nationality. Although his most famous composition is the massive set of variations based on the South American Communist song. The People United Will Never Be Defeated, he also composed such bizarre pieces as Les Moutons de Panurge. written (in Rzewski’s own words) “For any number of musicians playing melody instruments plus any number of non-musicians playing anything.” In this piece, notes are added at every turn until the theme becomes almost too complex to remember. Whatever chaos ensues, however, both the musicians an non-musicians are exhorted to “play loud!” (McLaughlin broadcast a wonderful live performance of this work by eighth blackbird.)

These late piano pieces are technically challenging but mostly quite short, nothing on the level of The People United. Pianist Bobby Mitchell, who knew Rzewski personally, describes the music here as presenting the ideas of “destruction, hope, war, isolation, and hypocrisy,” all of which sounds wonderful but has nothing to do with music, which is an abstract art form and only represents itself. The CD opens with the last two pieces from Rzewski’s piano cycle Dreams, “Ruins” and “Wake Up.” For Rzewski, the music is somewhat more tonal than usual although there is some bitonality in the clashing home keys of the music played by each of the pianist’s hands. It is, to my ears, surprisingly Charles Ives-like in this respect, which is certainly good. (For some reason I’ve never been able to figure out, Ives has pretty dropped off the list of “modern” composers that pianists play nowadays, almost as if he never existed.) Another surprise, to me at least, is that in “Ruins” Rzewski constructs the music using relatively “normal” theme-and-variations, albeit with a few little wrinkles thrown in. But it is surely interesting music. In addition to Mitchell’s outstanding technical abilities, what struck me about this recording is the almost unbelievable clarity and realism of the recorded sound—Mitchell comes across as if he’s playing “live,” right in your living room. Part of this may be due to the recording venue, “The Right Place Studio” in Brussels, but I still give kudos to recording engineer Bastien Gilson for capturing the sound of Mitchell’s piano so perfectly. Even the very best of Glenn Gould’s recordings, for instance, made in the early digital era, don’t sound this utterly realistic. Thus we have the best of all worlds: interesting music, an outstanding interpreter, and world-class sound, all in one package.


The composer at the piano

As “Ruins” progresses, however, Rzewski deviates more often from conventional form, but it is exceptionally interesting. morphing and changing as only Rzewski could do, taking little side-trips as the music eventually becomes so complex that only a master pianist like Mitchell could possibly make something of it. How I wish that other super-virtuosos out there like Argerich and Hamlin would stop wasting their time playing so much of the old-timey stuff and play more music like this!

“Wake Up” starts out very simply, with single notes played high on the keyboard, but very quickly becomes complex as Rzewski throws in a sort of skewered version of a boogie bass into the mix while the right hand begins playing more complex figures of its own. Rzewski never stopped being incredibly creative, it seems. My only regret, considering that this is the first issued recording of anything from Dreams, is that Mitchell didn’t include an extra piece or two. (For those who are interested, however, there is an incredible video on YouTube of Rzewski himself playing the entire cycle, which runs a little over an hour. HERE.)

War Songs, however, is pure, unconventional Rzewski: quirky melodic line, quirky rhythm, and a harmonic base that is not only quite odd but seldom touches a root note in its chords. Here, too, he uses several stoppages of the musical flow, and each of these pianistic songs-without-words has its own unorthodox sound and structure. Once again, Mitchell plays them splendidly, bringing out all of their nuance with near-infinite gradations of touch and volume.

But if War Songs are closer to early Rzewski, the three pieces that make up Winter Nights are not. As Mitchell puts it in the liner notes, they are written very sparsely in extremely slow tempi, “almost on the edge of what is physically perceivable as a pulse.” This is “floating” or “ambient” music, the kind that I normally abhor, but there is a considerable difference when it is written by a master composer because it goes somewhere and says something. Moreover, the music doesn’t stay in this slow tempo, but has episodes at a much faster pace and little filigrees that add interest, as it goes along. These aspects of the score are unusual when you consider that Rzewski considered it to be music that would “help with insomnia” in the manner of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. But as a chronic insomniac myself, I can vouch for the fact that playing music with this much activity in it—not to mention the Goldberg Variations—is not really a “help” for insomnia in the manner of a “cure.” It is a distraction to give you a highly complex activity to do since you can’t sleep anyway. If you want REAL help with insomnia, listen to Stephen Halperin. Yet if you were to excise the louder, busier passages from the recording, particularly the passage with the quasi-boogie bass in the second piece, it would indeed help you get back to sleep to listen to it since 85% of it is quite relaxing.

The last piece on this album, Saints and Sinners, written in 2016 for Canadian pianist Milton Schlosser, is another strange piece that vacillates between quiet, serene music and jumpy, rhythmic, rather dissonant passages. Mitchell played it at Rzewski’s funeral along with the Brahms Intermezzo Op. 118 No. 2, which was his favorite piece by an older composer and one he asked would be played at his funeral. It’s in a similar vein to Winter Nights except that the music seems much more episodic, flitting about in a way that sometimes defies common musical sense. I liked parts of it and disliked others, although the parts I liked were really good. It’s just a tad too quirky in places, even for me, but your reaction may differ.

In a way, with the exception of the War Songs, these late pieces clearly point to a calmer, less frantic Rzewski than his earlier work. His internal clock was slowing down and he had found a modicum of peace within himself. This is clearly an interesting and thoughtful tribute to a composer who Mitchell was close to and deeply admired. Well recommended for Rzewski fans, particularly the War Songs and the two excerpts from Dreams.

—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley

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