United Kingdom Frederic Rzewski’s 80th Birthday Concert – Rzewski, Mendelssohn, and Mahler: Igor Levit (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 13.4.2018. (MB)
Rzewski – Ages (2017, world premiere)
Mendelssohn – Songs without words: op.19b/1, 4; op.38/6
Mahler (arr. Ronald Stevenson) – Symphony no.10, ‘Adagio’
‘With Dallapiccola I made a serious mistake. … I missed a lesson because I had gone to visit some friends in London, and when I came back from London I found a letter saying that Maestro Dallapiccola felt that I was not the kind of student that he wanted, needed to work with, and would I please go somewhere else. And I realised that I had made a serious mistake … I must have given the impression of arrogance … And now, it’s one thing I’ve always regretted, because I certainly could have gotten a lot from that man if I had approached him correctly.’
With those rueful, rather moving words, spoken in a 1984 interview, Frederic Rzewski described the foreshortening of his lessons from Luigi Dallapiccola. Reading them when writing a chapter on the latter composer’s Il prigioniero for my book, After Wagner, sparked my interest. The other principal spark, slightly later, came from the now celebrated recording and performances (such as this) of Rzewski’s The People United will Never Be Defeated by Igor Levit. Now, a little under three years later, Levit gave the first performance, on Rzewski’s eightieth birthday, of a similarly lengthy new piano work by the composer: Ages, commissioned by the Wigmore Hall with the support of Annette Scawen Morreau.
Size is not everything; in many ways, it is nothing. (Ask Webern – although concision there is, of course something.) It would nevertheless be vain to insist – and I shall not try – that the scale of canvas, the generosity and ambition of work and performance were irrelevant, for they were not. Ages seems in some sense to play – although the composer insists that ‘the music does not “mean” anything – with ideas both of the ages of man and ‘“ages” in the sense of epochs, or periods, of history: stone, ice, digital and so on’. In five movements, it would almost have made a concert in itself – although I am very glad that it did not, given the equally outstanding performances of Mendelssohn and Mahler following the interval.
The first movement, marked ‘Solenne, maestoso’ (according to the programme, that is: I have not seen a score), opened, both as work and commanding performance, with an opening blow, on the case and keys of the piano. Then came silence, followed by slow, diatonic chords in sequence (if I remember correctly!) Not for the first time late Liszt, in spirit although hardly straightforwardly in language or other musical writing, came to mind. A long diminuendo and responding crescendo led into a typically gestural, post-Webern splash, responded to in what sounded almost akin to Shostakovich-style humour. (Not for nothing, perhaps, has the pianist recently been devoting himself to Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues.) An aspirant tango came into aural view. And so on. I thought, here and throughout the work, of a vast wall frieze – except that it passed us by, rather than vice versa. Maximalism of a kind and something more minimal, if not quite the latter’s –ism, played with each other, with us. Such, I think, was familiar from The People United; yet it was never quite the same, never retreading old ground. Moreover, Levit’s fullness of tone, whether in Rzewski’s furious outbursts or ‘maestoso’ progress, had to be heard to be believed. At one point, a slow, quiet phrase – perhaps foretelling the monodic lines of the Mahler Adagio in the second half – threatened to morph into the subject of the Art of Fugue. It did not; indeed, nothing one predicted ever quite happened. BACH? I think so, as indeed I would continue to think so throughout; but again, who is to say that certain intervals must refer to what we think they do? In some pieces, it is clear: here rather less so. Toys and whistles came and went, even old-fashioned video game (I think) cries and boings. I could not help but recall a notorious caricature of Mahler.
‘Free; slow, espressivo’ is the marking for the second movement. It seemed at times, especially to begin with, almost to be in the mould of a Russian mesto movement. Textures were very different, slowly transforming. Liszt, even Mussorgsky (‘Bydlo’) came to my mind briefly in the bass, the figure, whatever it ‘was’, swiftly transforming itself into a melodic (near-)sequence. Many such ‘Romantic’ gestures were to be heard, without suspicion of mere pastiche. Levit proved himself a handy percussionist, knocking on the piano’s case, in the third movement, marked ‘Robotic’. Such knocks eventually provoked, from underneath the keyboard, pitch resonances, returning him and us to the keyboard proper. There was something menacing, even dead, here to the knowing clichés: robotic, one might say. A cyber clockwork orange, perhaps? Moaning cries from the pianists, one suggestive perhaps of an air-raid signal, had one audience member seek refuge outside the hall. Our passions, of whatever sense, seemed momentarily united in the chorale, ‘O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden’. Was that Shostakovich again, not cited but suggested? Allusion or not? Figures we might have heard previously – the lack of certainty perhaps part of the point – led us into a lazy jazz ornamentation of Purcell’s Music for a While, which had, perhaps, been hinted at earlier. Coaxing that wonderful melody into a later, more chromatic pianistic world, Rzewski and Levit developed it in various ways, always at least a little surprising, whistled fragmentation included. There was even an organ-style ‘prelude’ to be heard. (Yes, I know that pianists used to ‘prelude’ too, but here the inner parts suggested a particular organist brand of legato, at least to this renegade organist.) A reckless cry of ‘Yee-ha!’ could not help but have political resonances as our ‘leaders’ prepared to bomb Syria.
The fourth movement, ‘Each note an age; glacial’, seemed aptly to have been around for a while (music for a while…) before it fully dawned upon us. At a (relatively) glacial pace, the music had me think once again about the question of certain intervals, their potential references, and how they might or might not fit together: Purcell and Bach in particular. Is an interval sometimes just an interval? Almost certainly. Quirky figures, perhaps self-consciously so, announced the final movement, ‘Too fast to last’, presumably in some sense the ‘digital age’. Levit’s digits certainly had a good deal of work to do here. I thought of Mussorgsky’s ‘Baba Yaga’, again from his Pictures. The wild woman eemed eventually to speak freely, but was that my fancy, my illusion? If this were a broken toccata, as I thought of it, by whom it had been broken? Ages were telescoping, perhaps telescoped. Repeated notes, fast, decreasing in volume, took us – or did they? – to a disembodied, again somehow Lisztian final chord.
The second part of the concert opened with three Mendelssohn Songs without words, heard in performances more delectable than I could ever have imagined. The E major piece, op.19b no.1, showed Mendelssohn to be every inch, every note the equal of Schumann. Likewise its successor, the fourth from the same book, revelling in the dignity of its harmonic progressions. A feather-light final phrase was simply to die for. It was again Schumann, if not quite, that I thought of in the ‘Duetto’, op.38 no.6. A good-natured contest between the world of the former’s Faschingschwank aus Wien and a Lutheran, devotional character ensued.
Ronald Stevenson’s transcription of the first movement from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony fascinated; in Levit’s performance, it both thrilled and satisfied too. The opening, Parsifalian monody sounded almost as if in search of another Song without words, although it was soon clear that we were almost, yet never quite, in the world of Schoenberg. Without strings, Mahler’s harmonies perhaps sounded all the more radical, all the more of our time rather than his. (There need not be any such opposition; that, perhaps, is the more important point.) It was, at any rate, interesting to consider how much of a difference equal temperament made, or did not. Marionettes from the ‘Rückert’ symphonies and the Ninth’s ‘Rondo-Burleske’ did their thing as enigmatically as ever. When the monody returned, it was perhaps more suggestive now of Tristan; was that Mahler’s doing, his transcriber’s, his pianist’s, or the listener’s? Who knows? Such, in a sense, is the magic of music. I relished the way dances of death turned from Mendelssohn to Rzewski and back. Or did they? Were they deathly at all? A grand tremolo, perhaps inevitably, was employed for that horrendous chord. What else, however, could Stevenson have done? And again, there was something almost Lisztian to the serenity experienced in the shadow of that trauma. As ever, Mahler’s Adagio proved both complete, especially in so well-shaped a performance, and not. The next century of musical history was both immanent – and not. Mahler remains.