FREDERIC RZEWSKI: The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (36 Variations on a Chilean Folk Song) – Ole Kiilerich, piano – Bridge 9392, 59:46 [Distr. by Albany] *****:
Rzewski is quite a notable composer and virtuoso pianist. I love what Slonimsky said of him in 1993: (He is) “capable of depositing huge boulders of sonoristic material across the keyboard without actually wrecking the instrument.” Much of his music is inspired by his deep political conscience and also features improvisation. These 36 variations are based on the Sergio Ortega song “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido” and was created as a companion piece to Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations.
The work is a series of six cycles, each of which has six stages in which musical relationships appear in this order: 1) Simple events, 2) Rhythms, 3) Melodies, 4) Counterpoints, 5) Harmonies, and 6) Combinations of these. Some of these variations get pretty avant, and two other revolutionary songs are thrown in: the Italian revolutionary song “Bandiera Rossa” (referring to Italians who in the 70s opened their doors to refugees from Chilean fascism), and Hans Eisler’s 1932 antifascist “Solidaritatslied.” The length of the variations may allude to the idea that unification of the people is a long story and that nothing worth winning is realized without effort.
The song is quite catchy and easily improvised upon, and I for one find it just as compelling to hear as Beethoven’s variations. I have a performance recorded by Rzewski himself for Nonesuch as part of the Rzewski Plays Rzewski set of 1975-99 piano works. On that one Rzewski also whistles towards the end. The new Bridge recording displays a much richer and more filled-out piano tone, making the Nonesuch version sound rather tinny in comparison. Also, Danish virtuoso Kiilerich really encompasses all the variety of transformation thru which the basic song goes during the variations, in a better way than does the composer, to my ears.