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Frederic RZEWSKI (b. 1938)
The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (1975) [62:30]
Four North American Ballads: No.4. Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues (1979) [10:35]
Ralph van Raat (piano)
rec. Bachzaal, Amsterdam, 21-22 April 2007. DDD
NAXOS 8.559360 [73:05] 


Experience Classicsonline

In 1987, when I interviewed to become a composition student at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague, my principal interrogator and critic was Brian Ferneyhough. He seemed determined to discover the complicated philosophy behind my selection of tones or notes. I didn’t really care that much, seeking enrolment to be taught by Louis Andriessen in any case. In the end I admit to becoming somewhat impatient: “if I want middle C it’s there for me on the piano – boing! – no need for long rumination or soul-searching …” Some months later when term started, Mr. Ferneyhough had departed somewhat abruptly for America, and been replaced by Frederic Rzewski: this to the horror of all the pale and intellectual students who had come for Brian, some of whom soon drifted away quietly not long after. I on the other hand was delighted by the dryly laconic and saturnine figure of Frederic. He arrived about two hours late on the first day, and I shall never forget his story about the adventures which resulted from getting on what he thought was the early train from Liège, and then finding his carriage being shunted into a siding in some obscure part of the station. He would often play bits of new pieces in the group lessons: he was working on North American Ballads at the time, and for those of us who were happy to see him he was a great friend who at that time was content to join us for drinks and talk about cigars and life in general as well as music. He once remarked to me, “that’s a nice shirt …”, “thanks” I replied. The conversation moved on a little, and then he suddenly turned on me: “You know what, you’re not a sport.” “Erm, I’m sorry, what do you mean …?” “I said; you’re not a sport. I said the same thing once to Arne Nordheim (I think it was, but it may not have been Arne Nordheim – my apologies if the memory proves incorrect) about one of his ties, and you know what Arne did? He immediately took off the tie and handed it to me, saying: ‘if you like it, you must have it …’” Rzewski had a knack of pointing out and exposing defects in your character you never even knew you had, but suddenly taking off my shirt in a crowded bar and giving it to someone will, alas, remain nothing more than the provenance of Freudian analyses where I’m concerned. 

The People United Will Never Be Defeated! is a seminal piano work of the 20th century. The piece is a 36-bar theme, 36 variations in which the material of the theme more often than not dictates the fabric of the music, an optional improvisation, and a return of the final theme. The theme is by a Chilean composer called Sergio Ortega, and the song from which it comes became a symbol of defiance against dictatorship throughout the world. Not necessarily immediately obvious on a first hearing, there is a great deal of structural logic to the work, which consists of six sets of six variations, the final variation of each set being itself in six parts, and a summation of the material in its group of pieces. Commissioned by Ursula Oppens, it is her recording on the Vanguard Classics label against which I will be comparing this new release played by Ralph van Raat. As well as the original performance and this new one, there is also a recording made by Marc-Andre Hamelin on Hyperion CDA67077 in 1998. The variations are paired with the Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues (as on the Naxos disc) and also 'Down by the Riverside'

The admirable qualities of Oppens’ 1978 recording are transparency, subtlety of touch, and just the correct amount of urgency and forward momentum to carry us through 50 minutes of often complex and ‘difficult’ piano music. If you can find a copy, it is still a vitally vibrant and ‘classic’ performance. Ralph van Raat’s version comes in at over 12 minutes longer than Oppens’, but hers doesn’t have any improvisational section – an idea which either appeared later, or was a device which emerged from Rzewski’s own performances. Either way, Raat gives no impression of sluggishness. The Naxos recording does have a plusher piano sound and an altogether rounder sonic profile, which gives the music a gentler feel in general. The contrasts seem less extreme, but I have the impression that this is partly an effect of the recording rather than the playing. Raat is dramatic, expressive, nimble, elegiac and virtuosic, and he has a fine feel for the variations with any kind of jazz idiom, but for some reason I get less of a sense of the all-important theme recurring in the music. It is there, no doubt, but Oppens brings it out at every available opportunity, where Raat seems more keen to bring out the contrasts in pianistic style with each variation. Both pianists worked with the composer when preparing these recordings, so here the honours are even. This is a very fine performance, and worth every penny of its diminutive asking price. The sonic effects of the lid banging are spectacular, and Raat’s improvisation towards the end is a fascinating mixture of effects and bravura creativity. I don’t, however, actually prefer it to the ‘original’, which wins, by a margin, on musical faith to the spirit of the origins of the music, rather than to Raat’s greater emphasis on pianism. It may also be that Rzewski’s views on the music have changed in the last 30 years, in which case I bow to the work’s right to its own evolutionary process. 

I do have one very big beef with Naxos on this release. With the Vanguard Classics CD, each variation is given its own access track number. On Naxos the whole piece is on track one, which means students, reviewers and casual listeners are all out of luck after about 5 minutes, as no-one knows where on earth we are in the piece: the complete list of variations with expression and tempo markings become pointless – unless you already know the work intimately of course. This is, agreed, the equivalent of the situation in a concert performance, but the whole idea of CDs was to remove this kind of vague wandering through the dark mysteries of vinyl grooves and analogue tapes, where finding a particular point in a piece could be the equivalent of trying to find a certain star in the night sky with a powerful telescope on which the sighting lens has been lost. This is an unforgivable lack in the production which I hope might be filled in any re-release, though I don’t hold out too many hopes.

Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues is the kind of militant minimalism which has its musical counterpart in works like Alexander Mosolov’s ‘Iron Foundry’. The piano is turned into a huge machine, conjuring the never-ending cycle of the works, while the workers sang the tune which also appears in the work. I only have a recording of Rzewski himself playing the third of the North American Ballads from which the Blues is number 4, but I am sure the punishingly dramatic impact Raat creates with this monumental piece is that which the composer sought when writing it. 

This is another excellent Naxos release, and should be snapped up by anyone with even the mildest interest in 20th century piano music, or just piano music in general. The People United … can rightly be seen as one of the greatest set of variations since Bach penned his ‘Goldbergs’ or Beethoven his ‘Diabellis’, and there is really nothing which should hold you back from exploring what is after all a relatively accessible and direct statement on a subject which concerns us as much today as if did when Pinochet was suppressing his opponents all those years ago.

Dominy Clements


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