Photo:Jerome de PerlinghiIt’s sometimes said that composers are either German or French, and American vanguard one Frederic Rzewski, with his much vaunted admiration for Beethoven, is clearly on the German side.  But how could he not be when some of his composition teachers like Dallapiccola and Babbitt forsook a flowing lyric line for a jagged dramatic one, whose aim is not to seduce the ear, but to wow with intellectual rigor?  But that doesn’t mean that Rzewski’s work is insincere, or lacks power — it has that in spades — but that it tends to be aimed at the mind and not the heart. It’s often confrontational, too. But that’s a good thing because any real musical interaction, like any real human one, has a built in   confrontational element, and confrontations help us grow.

Rzewski’s 1976 solo piano piece The People United Will Never Be Defeated (El Pueblo Unido Jamas Sera Vencido) is certainly a work in which he confronted the musical possibilities of all kinds of things that had been appearing in his output until then.  He was 38 at the time he wrote it and his discoveries here power lots of his subsequent work. I t’s as much as a watershed piece for him as Glass’ massive ensemble work Music In 12 Parts (1971-74) was for him.  It’s also a kind of compendium of rhythmic, harmonic and coloristic approaches to Chilean composer Sergio Ortega’s song for Salvador Allende on which it’s based. There are 6 variation sets of 6 each plus a coda, and Rzewski seems to use every possible pianistic device in it.

He’s easily one of the greatest pianists around, and having been a pupil of Charles Mackey who was himself a pupil of the great Russian virtuoso Josef Lhevinne, Rzewski knows that tradition from the inside out, and you get all kinds of takes on it here. The shadow of Beethoven weighs in, of course, as does a lot of the standard classical tradition, as well as whiffs of blues and Native American modes. It was amazing to watch Rzewski draw on all these musics with such concentrated vigor and technical ease and make them his own.  He used every imaginable kind of touch, both conventional and unconventional, and tactic. He played legato and with rubato — one of the most beautiful stretches, Var. 23 (as fast as possible), in a kind of minimalist groove, with what sounded like alternations from major to minor, in a steady tempo, with terraced dynamics — and produced loud sharply opposed sonorities.  Walls of sound would sometimes collapse into extreme quietude without the slightest warning, and then go back to a kind of cataclysm reined in by Rzewski’s superb technique.  Though describing his sound world is probably a fool’s errand, Rzewski does seem to fall into the New England Transcendental tradition of Ives, Ruggles, and Earle Brown at his most granitic, with lots of European echoes thrown in.  His performance, which clocked in at 62 nonstop minutes, was a lot different from that of  Ursula Oppens,  for whom he wrote it ( I reviewed her Berkeley performance several years ago for as  The King Regrets ), but equally powerful and musically convincing..

Rzewski’s nanosonatas, from which he played Books V and VI (200 ) showed what  he’s been up to lately, and while 32 years separated them from The People United, both pieces were obviously the work of an artist with an abiding interest in drama and timbral variety.  The nanosonatas also share Rzewski’s predilection for moving between consonance and dissonance, delicacy and violence, the clangorous and the calm.  There was also a wide range of color and density in these elliptical pieces — even the portraits of the composer’s children in Book VI sounded private — which are to short to be  etudes, and not properly sonatas, but something in between. They’re also mercurial, like Rzewski, who delivered himself of many lively opinions and convictions in a post performance chat with Mondavi Center’s executive director Don Roth.  The nanosonatas may be slighter in musical content and complexity than The People United.  Still their composer gave this 38 minute set the same care and attention he gave to that bigger and obviously imposing piece.  Rzewski didn’t phone anything in, which is aways the sign of a true and very serious artist, who’s really in the moment, or in his case, element, or elements, given the physical and intellectual nature of his work. And his audience in the Mondavi Center’s smallish and welcoming Studio Theatre clearly listened hard and asked him penetrating questions in the subsequent Q & A.