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Dip Your Ears, No. 117 (Rzewski's The People United)

available at Amazon
F.Rzewski, The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues,
Ralph van Raat

Greatness in art usually transcends politics. Shostakovich’s appeal extends beyond communists; Diego Rivera and Pablo Neruda aren’t only admired by socialists; Leni Riefenstahl has been (quietly) admired and copied, and even the quality of Arno Breker’s work can be acknowledged without raising too many eyebrows, these days. The intended (or unintended) political message takes a distant second place to the artistic quality with which it is conveyed. Certain Frederic Rzewski knew that, and while his own politics then (and perhaps still today) favored the ‘well-meaning’ brand of totalitarianism, he studied Wagner to learn how to achieve maximum narrative effect. Rzewski’s music—“19th century grandeur with 20th century compositional techniques” as Ralph van Raat calls them—deserves to be whole-heartedly embraced.

“The People United Will Never Be Defeated! – 36 Variations on ¡El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido!” tells rather innocuously of the universally valid ‘human struggle for change’, in this case the struggle to resist the perfectly undemocratic forces hard at work to unseat the almost-democratic Salvador Allende. The theme for the Variation comes from Sergio Ortega who wrote the anthem of the same name to a pop-tune he picked up at the time. Rzewski’s hour-long treatment for piano takes this tune as its ever-recurring kernel and goes far and wide with it.

Unfortunately Naxos’s new recording with Ralph van Raat performing gives only one track for the theme and its 36 variations that vary so greatly from the aggressively abbreviated, to the fractured and dispersed, to dreamy tinkles of beauty casually scattered about like flower petals. Even the piano lid gets slammed. Given their similar politics, could it be that Rzewki was familiar with Marc Blitzstein’s 1920’s Piano Percussion Music that asks the same of the performer?

The fourth of the Four North American Ballads—the Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues (background video here)—works up a storm that is totally irresistible before dropping some of that intensity for the lyrical, bluesy beginning of the second part. Van Raat goes far in that overwhelming direction and in some ways further than the composer. But he still remains surprisingly earthbound. Even Marc-André Hamelin, with his more accentuated, machine-like attack and Hyperion’s slightly better recorded piano sound, doesn’t come close to unleashing the fury that the repetition-and-increase can unfold live… like I last heard—with awe—in Severin von Eckardstein’s 2005 recital at the Kennedy Center.

The authentic struggle of Rzewski himself in this music is gripping; the ridiculous ease and devastating precision (almost beyond what the score indicates) with which Hamelin cruises through them breathtaking—in both works. Ralph van Raat falls between the two; closer to Hamelin but slightly heavier and the individual notes slightly less defined. Especially in the “Blues”, this undermines the feeling of being stuck in that factory, a cotton gin in overdrive, but it doesn’t undermine Raat’s recording. I prefer Hamelin, but given Naxos’ price advantage over Hyperion and the recording’s fine acoustic (the reverberation of the resonating strings is superbly caught), Raat remains perfectly competitive and a great introduction to those who wish to poke in and see what Rzewski’s compositions are all about. The beautiful 7-CD box (Nonesuch) of Rzewski playing his own compositions seems to be out of print, but the mp3 version is still available.

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