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Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated

Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated

25 Mar 2008

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Product details

  • Original Release Date: 25 Mar 2008
  • Label: Naxos
  • Copyright: (C) 2008 Naxos
  • Total Length: 1:13:02
  • Genres:
  • ASIN: B001LYDXUI
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By J Scott Morrison HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on 6 April 2008
Format: Audio CD
One pleasant memory of my thirty years attending the Aspen Music Festival was a conversation I had with the esteemed New York Times music critic, Harold C. Schonberg, as he was giving me a ride back into town from a performance at the Music Tent. He had recently written a controversial article about Frederic Rzewski's 'The People United Will Never Be Defeated!', calling it "an electrifying work, one of the most significant piano pieces of the generation." And he had taken some attacks from those who felt that Rzewski's piece was simply left-wing agitprop, not worthy of serious critical attention. I told him how fervently I agreed with him, having heard its dedicatee, Ursula Oppens, give a stunning performance of this hour-long work. I felt then, as I do now, that it was one of the most brilliant sets of piano variations in the entire history of such works and that it stood up as music qua music, regardless of its political implications (although there are plenty of those in the music as well). Since then his opinion has been strongly endorsed and probably twenty pianists have now included this dauntingly difficult work in their repertoires. There have also been a number of recordings (by Oppens, Rzewski himself, Stephen Drury, and Marc-André Hamelin) each one of which is marvelous in its own right. Now comes this new recording -- at budget price -- by Dutch pianist Ralph van Raat.

Raat's performance is probably closest to that of Oppens in that it tends to round off some of the work's rough edges -- one can hear them aplenty in Rzewski's recording -- but it also includes some appealing improvisation as indicated in the score as well. (I must say that I was a little let down, though, by his improvised cadenza just before the end of the piece. It seemed a little timid.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 7 reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Inspired Variations on a Theme 31 Mar 2008
By Dean R. Brierly - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
I have to confess that I approached this disc with a certain amount of trepidation when a friend insisted I give it a spin in my CD player. It consists of two pieces by the composer Frederic Rzewski, one of which, "The People United Will Never Be Defeated," consists of 36 variations on the famous protest song of that name. I feared that three-dozen variations of any kind of song, based on a simple melodic line, lasting 62 minutes, and played solely on the piano to boot, would tend to induce nothing beyond extreme tedium. But as I listened to the unfolding variations, my fears were quickly swept away and my senses became fully engaged. Hats off to Rzewski, who pulls off this feat by subjecting the melody to a variety of styles, among them blues, jazz, folk, martial and modernism; as well incorporating a staggering range of moods, tempos, keys and tonalities. The result is a unified soundscape of astonishing subtlety and power. After a few minutes, I forgot I was listening to music built around a single theme, so rich are varied are the changes Rzewski rings out of it. The variations are evidently intended to evoke various aspects of the universal working class struggle for change, but one need not be tuned into the music's political subtext to fall under its spell. Kudos also go to pianist Ralph van Raat, a musician of rare sensitivity, who wrings every nuance out of the work while lending it his own stamp of individuality. Van Raat summons up additional interpretive magic in the disc's companion piece, "Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues." This is based on another socially conscious song that cotton-mill workers used to sing in the 1930s. Rzewski's music is meant to evoke the sound of such a mill--harsh and mechanistic. The piece is duly driven by a repetitive and ominous percussive line, to which is gradually introduced a counterpoint passage that seems to represent a human voice struggling to assert primacy over the machinelike rhythm. The "human" piano part eventually wins out and transforms into gentle ragtime figures. Both of these pieces are testament to what truly creative musicians can conjure out of the most basic material. Simple, yet anything but simplistic, they make for a truly enjoyable and inspirational listening experience.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
A Late Twentieth-Century Masterpiece 6 April 2008
By J Scott Morrison - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
One pleasant memory of my thirty years attending the Aspen Music Festival was a conversation I had with the esteemed New York Times music critic, Harold C. Schonberg, as he was giving me a ride back into town from a performance at the Music Tent. He had recently written a controversial article about Frederic Rzewski's 'The People United Will Never Be Defeated!', calling it "an electrifying work, one of the most significant piano pieces of the generation." And he had taken some attacks from those who felt that Rzewski's piece was simply left-wing agitprop, not worthy of serious critical attention. I told him how fervently I agreed with him, having heard its dedicatee, Ursula Oppens, give a stunning performance of this hour-long work. I felt then, as I do now, that it was one of the most brilliant sets of piano variations in the entire history of such works and that it stood up as music qua music, regardless of its political implications (although there are plenty of those in the music as well). Since then his opinion has been strongly endorsed and probably twenty pianists have now included this dauntingly difficult work in their repertoires. There have also been a number of recordings (by Oppens, Rzewski himself, Stephen Drury, and Marc-André Hamelin) each one of which is marvelous in its own right. Now comes this new recording -- at budget price -- by Dutch pianist Ralph van Raat.

Raat's performance is probably closest to that of Oppens in that it tends to round off some of the work's rough edges -- one can hear them aplenty in Rzewski's recording -- but it also includes some appealing improvisation as indicated in the score as well. (I must say that I was a little let down, though, by his improvised cadenza just before the end of the piece. It seemed a little timid.) Impressive also are van Raat's brilliant booklet notes in which he speaks in detail about the construction of the set. Even with the experience of thirty years' familiarity with the work, I learned some things from his notes. For instance, I had never realized that the work also quotes another revolutionary song, Hanns Eisler's 'Solidaritätslied'.

The CD is rounded out by a fine performance of one of Rzewski's most popular pieces, 'Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues' from his Four North American Ballads.

One complaint: the entire set of Variations is given only one track, rather than a separate track for each variation. This makes detailed or repeated listening to a single variation difficult.

I would not want to be without any of the various recordings of this work. And this one's budget price is a real plus. Still, I suspect I'll continue to prefer Drury, Rzewski and Hamelin.

Scott Morrison
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Rzewski on Naxos 14 April 2008
By Robin Friedman - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
Frederic Rzewski's "The People United Will Never Be Defeated!" is a rarity in late 20th Century music. The work is a difficult set of 36 variations for solo piano using a variety of compositional and pianistic techniques. It is also a work composed from a distinct and obvious political perspective. Yet, the work has been properly recognized as a masterpiece, one of the most important American compositions for the piano. Rzewski's composition has achieved a wide following and has been recorded by many pianists, including Hamelin, Ursula Oppen, and the composer himself. It is a joy to have this music available on a new budget-priced Naxos CD performed by the Dutch pianist Ralph van Raat who has also prepared the informative liner notes. This CD should introduce many listeners to Rezewski's music.

Rzewski composed "The People United Will Never be Defeated!" in 1975 and the work received its first performance in Washington D.C. at the Kennedy Center in 1976, in celebration of the Bicentennial. Ursula Oppen first performed the piece and it is dedicated to her. This is a large-scale piece consisting of 36 variations on a theme written by a Chilean composer, Sergio Ortega, based upon the political turmoil in his country following the death of Allende. Although the title and the music have an overtly political, left-wing theme, Rzewski has created a work of art which transcends politics. This score is accessible, for all its difficulty, and its themes are universal.

The work is a successor to Beethoven's Diabelli Variations in its length and variety and in the ways in which each composer manages to develop a seemingly simple, unsophisticated tune. The theme consists of thirty-six measures and thirty-six variations are organized in groups of six with the final variation in each group summing up the previous five. The final set of six variations, in turn, sums up the prior five sets. The music is eclectic and draws on both popular forms such as the blues and on difficult regions of modern atonality. There are highly modernistic touches in the score, such as the sudden slamming shut of the cover of the keyboard in variation 11 and the repeated note pattern in variation 24.

The virtuosity and technical difficulty of the piano writing is apparent at an initial hearing. Rzewski's music is full of lengthy glissandos, long sections of repeated notes, long and wild runs, thunderous arpeggios, and much else. The difficulty and passion of the writing mirrors the importance of Rzewski's theme and the work required to reach the goal. Tempos vary as well throughout the variations, and the rhythm ranges from free and improvisatory to strict. The original theme remains recognizable through the many permutations of Rzewski's variations. After the set of free-ranging variations, the return of the main theme offers a moment of reflection, as does the return of the theme at the conclusion of Bach's Goldberg Variations.

This CD also includes a shorter work "The Winsboro Cotton Mill Blues" which juxtaposes the insistent thumping and whirring of the cotton mill against a plaintive, blusey theme.

This CD is an outstanding way to get to know a great work of American piano music from the late 20th Century.

Robin Friedman
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
a landmark piano work of the 20th century 2 July 2008
By F. A. Harrington - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
This disc comes with a lot of tough competition. Two recordings are available from the composer, along with recordings by the dedicatee, one of the top expositors of contemporary piano music and a pianist with the reputation of dispensing the most difficult piano music with the greatest ease. Into this stiff competition comes Ralph van Raat, known only to me through his fine performance of John Adams' complete piano works (all four of them) released on Naxos a couple of years back. If lacking the authority of the other pianists he is certainly up to the task delivering this multi-faceted work with the proper skill, energy and bravura.

As for the work itself, this set of 36 variations of the famous Chilean revolutionary anthem El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido! is a landmark piano work of the 20th century. An obvious comparison it to Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, in that it takes a relatively slight melodic theme and puts it through the blender of the composer's genius. I would say Rzewski uses an even broader variety of styles, some jazzy or gospel like, some with jagged rhythms and counterpoint, even some banging on the lid and sides of the piano, but the tune is never far away. There are even three improvised cadenzas (one reason, I suppose, for owning more than one performance). This is probably the lowest priced and easiest to find, so people whose curiosity is piqued, I would advise checking this on out. Some may complain that the fact the 63 minute piece is presented on one track makes it harder to follow, but I say strap yourself in and enjoy the ride.
9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Not the Best Place to Start 29 April 2008
By Sor_Fingers - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
Before I get into my criticism of the recording, I must tip my hat off to the performer, Ralph van Raat. Any performer who plays this titanic 20th century masterpiece without playing wrong notes certainly has some chops. Due to its length and blistering technical and artistic complexities, any performer playing this work certainly is very accomplished.

That being said, I don't like this recording. I appreciate what Naxos is trying to do here by offering classical music to the public at a very affordable price and therefore exposing people to music they may never listen to otherwise. However, I don't think that this particular piece is going to profoundly impact people without a performance that is just too marvelous for words, which in short, this one is not. The tempi are a little too slow in places, the phrasing is fairly flat and the sheer passion is lacking a little. The improvised cadenza before the return of the theme is quite a lackluster non sequitur (though I like the playing of the strings inside the piano and the way he returns to the theme is quite effective). Also I didn't hear the shouting and whistling from the performer that occurs in a few places during the piece, which just sends chills up and down my spine. This is a good performance, but this piece needs a sensational performance to really knock the socks off the audience. No one will listen to a 62 minute long piece without being on the edge of their seat the whole time. And frankly van Raat's playing bores me enough in places where if I was a common listener hearing the piece for the first time, I would stop caring.

That being said, I think that you SHOULD become familiar with this monumental piece, but this recording is not the place to start. The piece is a visceral musical experience, an apocalyptic display of technique and a social bullhorn for injustice. So start with Stephen Drury or Marc Andre Hamelin, and if you need to be a completist, than grab this one later. And if you want to watch a sensational performance for free on youtube (and are questioning the concept a 62 minute piano piece), then go here and watch all 8 installments: [...] Frankly, I think this guy should have recorded this piece instead.
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