Rzewski The People will never be defeated
Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, among the most politically and musically ambitious of all keyboard epics, was written in response to Ursula Oppens’s audacious request for a work to complement Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. Composed ‘at white heat’ during 1975, Rzewski’s unique formality and intricacy were transcended by his passionate concern for peace and justice. Fired by a Chilean street singer’s outpouring in 1973 (three months before Pinochet’s military coup) Sergio Ortega transformed a simple plea for social change into a hymn for freedom and the seed for Rzewski’s vast canvas (which includes quotations from Bandiera Rossa and Solidaritatslied, Italian and German anti-Fascist songs; a reminder that repressive regimes represent a universal rather than merely nationalist darkness) was sown. Today, as we contemplate the disgraced Pinochet, to say nothing of Baroness Thatcher’s obtuse support, Rzewski’s work takes on a peculiarly intense relevance. Embracing many influences and styles, moving from an accessible abstraction to an alternating sense of triumph and desolation, and alive with requests for improvised cadenzas and optional whistles and shouts (reminders of a world beyond mere cleverness; the reverse of ‘special effects’) Rzewski generously, and unforgettably, gives us a melting-pot of world-wide concern expressed in an ultra-American idiom.
All three pianists play as if doubly aware of such rich humanity, and bring an unflagging vitality, sensitivity and brilliance to their Herculean task. Each disc has its own distinctive attributes. Stephen Drury dedicates his performance (prefaced by the singing of El Pueblo Unido) to his mentor Claudio Arrau (Chile’s greatest musical son) and to the memory of the 1989 Romanian Revolution. And, not surprisingly, Ursula Oppens (the music’s dedicatee) displays a special authority. Yet if forced to choose between three such magnificent offerings I would have to opt for Marc-Andre Hamelin, the best recorded, and with the bonus of two of the North American Ballads (both, again, politically motivated; the first a spiritual sung during the Vietnam War, the second, dating from 1930, a savage and propulsive plea for an end to exploitative working conditions in the textile mills of North Carolina), his performance is a marvel of clarity, refinement and sympathy. Hear him in the mezzo-forte continuation of the introduction, in the tirelessly evolving Var. 27 or in the concluding violent distortions of the principal idea, and you are aware of a musician who can trump even the aces thrown down by Oppens and Drury. Suddenly I wanted to hear Hamelin in those earlier and towering variations, Bach’s Goldberg and Beethoven’s Diabelli, a tribute to his immaculate technique and musicianship.
In conclusion I would urge all readers to hear this extraordinary recording. Few works have generated a greater sense of warmth and courage or been performed with greater skill and devotion.'