One bearded man in his late 60s, clad in dark slacks and a red shirt, seated at the piano, flanked by microphones, created some of the season's most powerful music theater last night.
Frederic Rzewski closed his recital in Boston Conservatory's Piano Masters Series with one of his masterpieces, ''De Profundis" (1992), a setting of texts drawn from Oscar Wilde's famous letter from Reading Gaol.
Rzewski remarked that he regards ''De Profundis" as a supreme example of English prose and ''on a level with Shakespeare." The half-hour piece presents eight sections of Wilde's piercing cry from the heart, augmented by a brief political passage from his ''The Soul of Man Under Socialism." The pianist bridges the text, which he speaks while playing, with a series of interludes that depict the psychological climate of the words; Wilde wrote that this period of his life was a ''symphony of sorrow passing though its rhythmically linked movements to its certain resolution."
The performer punctuates his playing with sharp breaths, shouts, moans, whistling, ululations, and singing. One of the movements is a percussion piece, rapped out on the surfaces of the closed keyboard and slapped on parts of the performer's body. The piece requires instrumental virtuosity and the resources of an uninhibited actor -- Rzewski has a deep, resonant speaking voice that he suffuses with passion and pain. His performance was almost unbearably poignant yet ultimately inspiring as Wilde tutors himself to think of this experience not as an appalling end but a wonderful beginning. Another unforgettable aspect was that Rzewski has all the genius but none of the affect of a performer -- he simply shares states of being.
Before the recital Rzewski mingled casually with the audience and later introduced each piece with understated affability and allowed the audience to decide whether it wanted an intermission -- he felt no need for one.
Rzewski opened with his ''Four Pieces" (1977), a meditation on Chilean music and politics and also included ''Cadenza," his 15-minute riff on themes from Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto. Planned for performance within the concerto, the ideas ran away with the composer. Rzewski's music is dense and clangorous, percussive and passionate. He is a take-no-prisoners pianist who has discovered new sounds the instrument can make -- overtones released by the pedal become part of the atmosphere. He offered one encore, Andrew Marvell's 17th-century poem ''To His Coy Mistress," which he wittily declaimed while playing malleable music in the style of English folk song.
Rzewski is an American maverick, like Walt Whitman or Charles Ives, and as more people discover his music, he may become as essential as the others.