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Many Paths

Piano music by
Frederic Rzewski -

'... a marvel of composition, enjoyable by anyone.'

Frederic Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated! Ursula Oppens, Jerome Lowenthal. © 2015 Cedille Records

The somewhat provocative title here is relevant: 'The people united' is one of those immensely powerful melodies which emerged from the desperate struggles between Right and Left in Southern America — most famously Argentina and Chile — during the 1970s and 80s. The song originated with the Chilean composer Sergio Ortega (1938-2003), sung by popular folk group Quilapayún, and expressed the determination of the common people not to knuckle under to the dictatorial, self-appointed military regimes which seized power, overthrowing legitimate governments such as that of Salvador Allende, with every intention of holding and clinging on to power for an indeterminate time.

Being a popular melody, it lends itself surprisingly effectively to a variation treatment. What Frederic Rzewski (born 1938) has done is to come up with a set of thirty-six keyboard variations, which can easily be likened to Bach's Goldberg Variations, or to give a later example, the Brahms variations on a theme by Handel.

Listen — Frederic Rzewski: Theme (The People United ...)
(track 1, 0:36-1:00) © 2015 Cedille Records :

The music travels down many paths, revealing an awareness of post-Stockhausen modernism, the minimalist experiments, of vividly dramatic folk music and electonic music, too. Thus track 11 (Variation 10), 'comodo, recklessly' feels like a passionate, modern-aware outburst, while what follows sounds like softly bowed string harmonics set against the main piano argument.

Listen — Frederic Rzewski: Variations 10 and 11 (The People United ...)
(track 11, 0:40-track 12, 0:17) © 2015 Cedille Records :

But the music can as easily transform itself into a blues or negro spiritual, quiet sections which maybe allude to a different era of oppression; and the contrasts between these restrained passages and the bravado and often explosive declamation elsewhere are what helps make the whole effect one of genuine passion and onward-rolling drama.

Listen — Frederic Rzewski: Variation 18 (The People United ...)
(track 19, 0:00-0:24) © 2015 Cedille Records :

An easy swing to Variation 18 is offset by a forceful underlay, so both moods are fused here, before a brisk Toccata of almost cheeky urgency takes over, and then two of those movements, equally relentless, in which the melody feels as if it is being defiantly reversed or inverted.

With a melody and treatments such as this, how could the People possibly be defeated? Fast canons, insistent moto perpetuo, and wonderful staccato moments of stasis that feel like displaced Webern (track 26) all play a role in preserving the variety, the irresistible forward impetus and the sense of nervous, aching determination.

Listen — Frederic Rzewski: Variation 25 (The People United ...)
(track 26, 0:00-0:37) © 2015 Cedille Records :

A long adagio (Variation 27) like a Purcellian ground bass extends to nearly five minutes, and takes on many forms, a brilliant quasi-fugue among the most striking, converting itself into a thrumming bass over which fragments of the melody dance, assuming a Steve Reich-like patterning. Another dance, with echoes of the ground bass, establishes itself before several times disintegrating and then re-engaging itself. Variation 30 is one of several sections whose staccato seems to prance on stiletto heels, then evolve into something close to pure Bach, then Brahms.

Listen — Frederic Rzewski: Variation 30 (The People United ...)
(track 31, 1:30-2:16) © 2015 Cedille Records :

The performer, pianist Ursula Oppens, is the dedicatee of this work composed in 1975, when the worst signs of dictatorship were emerging, just two years after General Pinochet's coup which saw the fall and death of Allende. Though the work has been recorded several times, this fabulous tour-de-force from the performer most closely associated with and deeply imbued in the work makes Cedille's handsomely captured recording a real must for collectors. With a palette spanning jazz and serialism, hispanic to baroque, this is a marvel of composition, enjoyable by anyone. The addition of the two-player work entitled just that, Four Hands, which probes even impishly into modernist techniques without losing an element of lightness and dance, opening finally into a five minute fugue whose possibilities are all the greater for the interplay of the two players, makes for a delicious bonus.

Copyright © 24 June 2016 Roderic Dunnett,
Coventry UK








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