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Spotlight on Frederic Rzewski: Lisa Moore (piano), Greenwich House Music School, New York City, 28.2.2008 (AM)


It was only fitting that pianist Lisa Moore referred to American composer and virtuoso pianist Frederic Rzewski  (born 1938) as "the Chopin-Liszt of our time," considering that the recital took place at the recital hall of the Greenwich House Music School on Barrow Street, a hall which indeed reminds one of the Paris salons of Chopin and Liszt's own time. The intimate atmosphere with the piano placed next to the window overlooking the street and the burning candles almost made me feel I was about to listen to an all-Romantic program—that is, until Ms. Moore walked on the stage and sat down to begin her all-Rzewski program with his Piano Piece No. 4.

What was immediately noticeable was her deliberate effort at bringing out the folk tune by using minimal pedal during this section, resulting in crisp articulation which contrasted with the loud but barely discernible repeated notes and big chords which evoke blasts of violence (an effect that would be repeated in Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues later in the program).  It is always refreshing to hear a pianist reflect not only the music but the philosophy behind it as well –provided there is one, of course, which is generally the case with Rzewski.

To His Coy Mistress (1988) is for "singing pianist," who is given the famous poem of the same name by Reverend Andrew Marvell. Here Ms. Moore’s vocal abilities were a big bonus, where a simple singing melody in the right hand is accompanied by voice, and the left hand, for the most part, is assigned the arpeggios. The more turbulent middle section and the return to the calm opening melody in the end felt structured like a ternary nocturne, coupled with a song. Since the right hand melody is basically chords, Ms. Moore’s voice fulfilled the role of "Bel Canto star" linking one note to the next, to riveting overall result.

The program moved to Rzewski's more theatrical side with "The Prodigal Parents," a movement from The Road (2000), and not much piano playing to speak of in the traditional sense. With the piano lid closed, the player mimics a performance with the tapping of her fingers; the only sound from the strings is heard when Moore bangs on the lid, to imitate a loud chord.  There were quite a lot of chuckles from the audience, particularly in the middle when the score calls for the pianist to applaud herself.

Next up was the fan favorite De Profundis from 1992, and one of the most familiar of Rzewski’s output. The dilemma here is that we don’t know which is more engaging, the music or the text. One way to avoid this problem is to give both their respective dues, which is exactly what Lisa Moore did, never over-accentuating the piano when reading the text, letting the wisdom of Wilde take the initiative. When the piano line returned it was with utmost clarity, particularly evident in the fugal interlude. The balance between the two parts, further fine-tuned by the supplementary vocal effects, made a whole that must be very difficult to pull off.

Another crowd pleaser was the last, which Moore introduced as "a built-in encore to the program."  The confined space of the hall suggested the constricted atmosphere of a small factory, which Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues (written in 1978) is supposed to mirror. Ms. Moore started with less agitation than we are accustomed to hear from the likes of Hamelin, but she gradually increased the intensity to an almost uncomfortable level by the time the grinding noises of the mill gave way to the blues motif. The insistent left hand arpeggios were played more forte than usual and the pianist’s preference for use of pedal here confused me a little until the clear blues melody emerged. Apparently, Ms. Moore again used the same advertent technique to differentiate clearly between the soulful blues and the mill's mechanic rumbles. Although the melody remained very clear and defined, one slight consequence was that rhythm sounded a bit too rigid for blues. But the wonderful transition near the end, when the factory machinery returns, was full of bluesy despair.

Rzewski’s music demands a lot from the pianist. Apart from the technical difficulties of the written score, one may have to sing, talk, whisper, whistle, groan, murmur and in certain cases, even act. We are fortunate that Lisa Moore can do all that very naturally.

Alain Matalon


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