RZEWSKI The People United Will Never Be Defeated!
Hard on the heels of Igor Levit’s blistering new account of Rzewski’s variations comes a new recording by its dedicatee and first performer. It was Ursula Oppens’s 1978 Vanguard LP that provided me with my first encounter with this piece, and at the time its harnessing of extended techniques, hyper-virtuosity and casual polystylism to a Romantic-radical agenda (similar in so many ways to Ronald Stevenson’s Passacaglia on DSCH) seemed attractive in principle but off-puttingly trendy in practice. But then later, finer recordings won me over, in large part at least, to the musical imagination at work.
Not surprisingly, Oppens’s new version is sonically far more vivid than her first (though not in any way comparable to what Sony Classical provides for Levit). Nor have the years diminished her keyboard agility. Only by the standards of a Hamelin or a Levit do some of the textures emerge as a little blurry or the rhythmic drive as less than breathtaking. This is, in short, a fine monument to Oppens’s unflinching devotion to contemporary piano music, and it is also a tribute to her that others have been emboldened to follow and surpass her.
Whether the four pieces that comprise Four Hands will figure in the calculations of any but the most ardent Rzewski completist, I would doubt, since they show that without a strong concept to fire him up, his invention is not all that remarkable.
Cedille reprints Christian Wolff’s original essay and one by Jerome Lowenthal – Oppens’s long-standing duet and duo partner – on Four Hands.