Forced to name one masterpiece written during the last quarter of a century, I would almost certainly nominate Frederic Rzewski's The People United Will Never Be Defeated! Rzewski, born in 1938 in Westchester, Massachusetts, is at the same time a musician of decidedly avant-gardist sympathies -- he made his name in Europe in the early 1960s as a virtuoso pianist and proponent of the new music -- and a composer-pianist in the tradition stretching back to Mozart. He is also a man of decidedly populist politics, and this work, composed in 1975, "tells a story which, although it may not translate into words, is nonetheless based on real events. As I wrote it I was thinking of the universal aspirations of people everywhere to freedom and independence."
Three months before the military coup in Chile in 1973, which overthrew the elected government of Salvador Allende and installed the murderous military dictatorship of Pinochet, composer Sergio Ortega, part of the Unidad Popular coalition, observed a street singer in Santiago chanting "El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!" ("The people united will never be defeated!"). A few days later, Ortega sat at a piano at a party, and the song, which rapidly became an anthem for Chilean resistance, virtually wrote itself. In 1975, Rzewski was commissioned by pianist Ursula Oppens to write a work to complement Beethoven's "Diabelli" Variations in recital. Working at a furious pace, he produced the 50-minute masterwork in less than two months. The People, as its subtitle suggests, is a set of variations on Ortega's melody; in scale, the work is comparable to Bach's Goldberg Variations and to Beethoven's Diabellis. In scope, it is a vast compendium of keyboard techniques from the baroque to minimalism, with nods at everybody from Bach and Handel, via Beethoven and Lizst, to Webern, Cage, Boulez, Stockhausen and the minimalists.
Rzewski's great triumph is that at no time does the piece simply sound like eclecticism for its own sake, even when he requires the pianist to employ avant-garde techniques (like whistling, shouting or slamming the lid of the keyboard). In Rzewski's hands, the vast range of styles are welded together into a formal structure of enormous power.
In fact, the structure itself is probably worth examining: the main melody of the Ortega song consists of 20 bars, as does each variation; the variations are divided into six groups of six, each group related by technique (one group concentrates on rhythmic variation, another on melodic, etc.). The last variation of each group recapitulates the first five, four bars each; i.e., the first four bars of the last variation are in the style of the first variation of the group, the next four bars in the style of the second, and so on. There is then a coda to this last variation, which leads into the next group. The variations themselves are given a plethora of markings such as "With determination," "A bit faster: optimistically," "Relentless, uncompromising"; and, as early as variation 13, Rzewski introduces supplementary melodic material, in the form of the Italian revolutionary song "Bandiera Rossa" -- Italy provided a home for many Chilean refugees in the 1970s -- and later Hans Eisler's 1932 anti-Fascist Solidaritätslied.
The sixth and last group of variations recapitulates the first five groups: the first variation taking four bars from the first variation of the first group, four from the first variation of the second group, and so on. Thus, when the very last variation uses the same technique as earlier groups to recapitulate the first five variations in the final group, it is in fact summarizing the entire work -- in about 90 seconds. This complex formal structure lends a tremendous feeling of cohesiveness to the work, which comes across even to the first-time listener.
This new recording is the fourth to be issued of this masterpiece, and may well be the finest of them all. The competition, then, is threefold. First comes Ursula Oppens from 1978 (reissued on CD in 1993); in 1986 the composer himself recorded the work in Denmark, although this did not appear (on the hat Art label) until 1990; next came Stephen Drury (New Albion) in 1994; and now this new Hamelin disc.
The People is, apart from everything else, a tremendous tour de force of virtuoso pianism; Rzewski himself is a formidable pianist who would probably be far better known if he hadn't spent his career working in the avant-garde. But I think even he would admit that Hamelin has the edge over everybody else in sheer virtuosity. Consider variation 23: "As fast as possible, with some rubato"; the composer, with quite a lot of rubato, takes roughly 30 seconds (his is the only recording without individual tracks for each variation); Ursula Oppens, in her pioneering Vanguard recording, dispatches in 28 seconds; Drury brings this down to 25; but Hamelin manages, somehow, to shave it to a breathtaking 22 seconds. Hamelin's pianism is not simply restricted to an ability to play faster than everybody else. His touch is astonishing: as others have observed, he seems incapable, at whatever volume, of producing an ugly sound; and he exercises as fine a control over the structure of the structure of the work as any.
The real choice to my mind, is between Hamelin and Rzewski himself. On purely technical grounds -- both of playing and recording -- Hamelin comes out ahead, and he shows a great commitment to the music. But in the composer's hands, there is also a burning sense of political commitment with which some might be uncomfortable. The difference is perhaps best exemplified in the optional improvised cadenza specified in the score between the final variation and the reappearance of the main theme. Hamelin is the only other pianist to take up Rzewski's challenge; whereas the composer produces an angry, corrosive outburst, Hamelin's is more considered, perhaps more "objective". For me both recordings are indispensable. Hamelin's has the advantage of being better recorded (arguably the best of the four and up to Hyperion's usual high standards), cheaper and easier to find.
Which leaves little enough space to mention the two remaining items (only Hamelin and Drury offer anything but the main work): two of the four North American Ballads Rzewski wrote for the late Paul Jacobs. Down by the Riverside is a charming ramble based on the song that became well known during the Civil Rights era in the US. Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, on the other hand, is a terrifying representation of mechanization and oppression. You could put this music behind the famous factory scenes in Metropolis and it would work perfectly. In the motoric opening, Hamelin is quite extraordinary, his piano devoid of virtually all tonal information until the sound is all pounding mechanical rhythm. Again, even the composer can't match him for sheer virtuosity.
This is an important and eagerly anticipated new release of a major late-20th-century masterpiece. Devotees of great piano writing (and great playing) should investigate without delay.
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