Proms 2013: Frederic Rzewski – Piano Concerto (World Première); Gerald Barry – No other people. (UK Première)

by 5:4

Prophets, visionaries, seers, they’re an acquired taste, are they not? Often they get relegated to an idealistic niche characterised as “head in the clouds”—yet a more careful survey reveals that most luminaries are among the most earthly-wise and practical of people. This difficult-to-digest paradox coloured much of the music at yesterday’s late night Prom, which, alongside Feldman’s timeless Coptic Light, featured the UK première of Gerald Barry‘s 2009 work No other people. and the first performance of Frederic Rzewski‘s new Piano Concerto, performed by the composer with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ivan Volkov.

Gerald Barry’s polystylistic engagement with the everyday and the banal has achieved some renown in recent times, most notably in his striking operatic treatment of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. No other people. is to some extent a continuation of this engagement, although in significantly more genteel fashion, and with far less rewarding results. One wouldn’t expect Barry to do something as conventional as to develop melodic material, and indeed he doesn’t; the work’s first third is stubbornly static, a simple oscillating idea relentlessly pursued by horns and strings, rendered momentarily oblique here and there, before being abandoned for a kind of two-part invention. This is put aside even more swiftly, leading to a second half that initially fascinates due to its complete absence of melody. What Barry has effectively done is focus his attention on accompaniment, and for a time such emphasis on material of secondary importance has a curious novelty. But it palls very quickly indeed, becoming a meaningless stream of blank gesture and empty velocity. Barry’s ultimate decision, to provide a revised repeat of much of this material, only damages the piece further, destroying its sense of a kaleidoscope of ever-changing images (which, after all, is its inspiration—a series of illustrations by Henri A. Zo). Bereft of irreverence, wit, or substance, No other people. is irritating while it lasts and instantly forgettable afterwards.

It was, i’m staggered to recall, no fewer than 20 years ago that composer Howard Skempton first introduced me to the music of Frederic Rzewski. From that initial encounter (a riproarious performance of Les Moutons de Panurge), it was clear Rzewski’s attitude toward the conventions of music-making usually require one to leave expectations at the door. If anything, his Piano Concerto does the opposite of Barry’s piece, providing a superabundance of substance, the challenge to the listener being to find a way of negotiating through it. and this is quite some challenge, as despite being rooted in a Classical model, Rzewski is forever pulling the rug from under the music. Rapid charges forward are abruptly halted, loud outbursts abruptly silenced, ideas thrown between fore-, middle- and background with almost reckless abandon, causing such constant shifts of focus it’s surprising one doesn’t develop ear-strain. There’s a distinct air of quest, of the players determinedly setting out in search of something, putting feelers out all over the place, but what holds everything together is both the strong relationship between soloist and orchestra—there’s no doubting the piano is in charge—as well as the piano’s seemingly innate sense of direction. Even if we might feel occasionally lost (forgiveable, in such wildly shifting music as this), we never feel the music is lost; whether it knows where it’s going or simply has sufficient chutzpah to press on regardless hardly matters. Stylistically, the relationship to neoclassicism is complicated, never feeling harmonically free yet always tonally ambiguous. The final movement comes closest to evoking past idioms—as such, an example of that ‘acquired taste’ mentioned above—but the ecstatic slow movement before it is a world apart from such considerations. It’s a welcome point of repose in a work that demonstrates again Rzewski’s uncanny gift for presenting disarmingly complex material in surprisingly accessible guises.


Frederic Rzewski - Piano Concerto
  • Loved it! (44%, 12 Votes)
  • Liked it (41%, 11 Votes)
  • Meh (15%, 4 Votes)
  • Disliked it (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Hated it! (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 27

Loading ... Loading ...


Gerald Barry - No other people.
  • Loved it! (17%, 5 Votes)
  • Liked it (28%, 8 Votes)
  • Meh (24%, 7 Votes)
  • Disliked it (10%, 3 Votes)
  • Hated it! (21%, 6 Votes)

Total Voters: 29

Loading ... Loading ...

Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

A perceptive review of the Rzewski which echoed my own thoughts.
There was something rather moving about seeing the composer himself playing the solo part. Quite a rarity these days.
The last time I witnessed this scenario at the Proms was Roger Smalley.
I suppose it’s outside the remit of the rather conservative instincts of Roger Wright (or whoever commissions new pieces),but a piano concerto from Michael Finnissy, with the composer as soloist would surely be an arresting idea. Do we really need yet another piece by Turnage etc.??!!


Just wondering what you thought of John White’s Chord-Breaking Machine. It wasn’t a premiere, but it’s worth checking out no less!

I agree with Giles re: commissioning Michael Finnissy.

Click here to respond and leave a commentx