Aureole etc.

Golden Age singers

Nimbus on-line

Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Frederic RZEWSKI (b. 1938)
Piano Works, 1975-1999

North American Ballads (1978-9)
The Housewife's Lament (1980)
Mayn Yingele (1988-9)
A Life (1992)
Fougues (1994)
Fantasia (1999)
Sonata (1991)
The Road, Parts I-IV (1995-7)
36 Variations on "The People United Will Never Be Defeated!" (1975)
De Profundis (1992)
Frederic Rzewski, piano
Recorded at Odéon 120/The Right Place, Brussels, March 1998 - March 2001.
NONESUCH 7559796232[53.18+55.50+63.03+61.13+64.37+63.47+32.42]


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This seven disc set chronicles the music composed for piano over a quarter of a century by a true American original. Frederic Rzewski has managed simultaneously to extend the maverick lineage established by Ives and Cowell while maintaining a pianistic, virtuosic allegiance which owes just as much to composers like Grainger or even Liszt(!), in the ability to take simple folk/popular materials and build something truly magnificent out of them, as it does to the avant-garde exemplified by John Cage. Little wonder then that some of the better known examples of Rzewski's art included here (The People United…, for example) have previously been championed by the likes of such luminaries as Marc-André Hamelin. The package, as assembled by Nonesuch, in much the same manner as the John Adams Earbox set and a similar Reich collection, is beautifully chosen, annotated and put together. The discs are carried in slimline jewel cases within a sturdy outer card sleeve, with superb and apt photography illustrations throughout. The booklet notes include much salient detail from the composer/pianist himself and also an illuminating essay by Christian Wolff and, along with the music, give a great insight into the creative/political crucible of the 1960s that seems to have been the catalyst for much of this music. I am in no doubt that the composer's splendid and powerful performances of his own music demonstrate absolutely Rzewski's integrity and commitment to what he believes in (justice, equality, the rights of the downtrodden etc.). It stands, in these times, to this listener at least, in diametric opposition to the hollow-eyed and sickly "moral" posturings now so prevalent among the world’s ‘leaders’. It is contemporary but timeless. It doesn't need a "cause" to be enjoyed but equally and admirably lends itself to one.

The first disc includes the North American Ballads (for ballads read "protest songs"), where Pete Seeger is as large a presence as anyone. Dreadful memories, Which Side Are You On? And Down By The Riverside are powerful evocations in their own right but treated relatively traditionally/moderately in terms of the way the variations evolve. The concluding Winnsboro' Cotton Mill Blues is much more relentless. The CD ends with the much calmer Housewife's Lament, a beautiful set of variations on a 19th century song, quite British sounding (Irish?). To my mind this disc is the highlight of the set and amply illustrates one of the best things about the whole package (other than the music), i.e. that the lyrics from the original songs on which this music is based are included. This is very instructive and engenders an even greater empathy with the music than may already exist.

Disc 2 includes a piece based on a highly poignant Jewish folk tune/song (Mayn Yingele) which again illustrates both Rzewski's gift for taking and transforming this type of material while remaining true to its original significance and meaning. A Life follows and is a tribute to John Cage on his death. The concluding Fougues and the Fantasia and Sonata on disc three find Rzewski approximating most closely to classical antecedents, if not so much in style as loosely, at least in form or intention. It is here, perhaps, that my attention started to wander. It is unsurprising in a set of this size that there are going to be, for want of a better term, longueurs, and discs three, four and five contain most of them. However, even in the Sonata we are reminded of Rzewski's main inspirations with the appearance of the traditional bugle call, Taps.

Discs four and five are given over to the first four parts of an unfinished (eight part) musical "novel" The Road. At times it is very inspired and inspiring, at others it meanders rather aimlessly and pointlessly, just like the highways which gave it its title, I suppose. The four parts included here are designated "Tracks", "Turns", "Tramps" and "Stops". Again, the inspirations are familiar - "a piano arrangement of a choral piece protesting French nuclear tests in the South Pacific", a railroad blues from the 1930s, a US army chant ("Sound off" etc.) - except for the use of Gogol's The Nose at the very end of Part IV (linking back to the idea of it being a novel?).

The 36 Variations on The People United…is probably Rzewski's best known piece. The composer's account of how he and pianist Ursula Oppens (the dedicatee of this and other Rzewski pieces) first encountered the original song at a concert by Chilean group Inti-Illimani (British readers may remember their wonderfully atmospheric music for The Flight of the Condor) is quite moving. This transformation of the song also quotes the Italian revolutionary song Bandiera Rossa (Alan Rawsthorne did the same in a quite different piece) and one of Eisler's anti-fascist utterances. It makes for a spell-binding listen, one moment fervent, the next delicate; as powerful in the composer's own hands as in those of Hamelin.

The final disc, again one which I was more ambivalent about, is the shortest in the set and includes a text recital based around Oscar Wilde's imprisonment in Reading Gaol. It is certainly an interesting piece first time around but I am not sure how often the majority of listeners would be likely to indulge in repeat listenings.

Whatever way you care to look at it, this is a major achievement for Rzewski. It showcases a great deal of ambitious but not "difficult" music, music that has a great moral and social imperative lying behind its undoubted appeal as "just music". It is a source of some comfort to me that corporate America, in the form of Warners/Nonesuch, is prepared to release this kind of document at a time when the caveman element/mentality (if it moves bomb it, if it doesn't bomb it anyway, just in case!) seems to have captured the zeitgeist for its own in that country.

Neil Horner

Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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