Lebrecht Weekly | Frederic Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated (Quartz Music)

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The American composer, living in Italy until his death last year, was prompted by the 1973 overthrown of Chilean president Salvador Allende to compose 36 variations on the fallen regime’s populist campaign song, El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido.

Despite lasting almost an hour and containing episodes of atonal fury, the piece was quickly and frequently recorded, first in 1976 by its dedicatee Ursula Oppens and latterly by the German pianist Igor Levit. In all, there are a dozen recordings. None has captured my attention so compellingly as this new release, by the 2013 Van Cliburn winner, the Ukrainian pianist Vadym Kholodenko.

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Rzewski’s score expands classical theme-and-variations method by interleaving two additional, politically related themes – the Italian Bandera Rossa and Hanns Eisler’s Solidarity Song. Each acts as a breaker on the original theme, clocking in as variations 13 and 26, both challenging the existing texture and advancing it. The music goes from an almost Schubertian delicacy to Webernian dissonances that would make a half-dead house cat sit up and think. Variation 15 calls to mind the atmosphere of Arlo Guthrie’s hobo’s lullaby. Variation 18 is pure cabaret.

Kholodenko is the first pianist I have heard who conceives the Rzewski set as a unity, interpreting it as a linear descendant of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, with added passion and rage. Although he made the recording a year ago in St Petersburg, one cannot help hearing anticipations of the present madness between Russia and Ukraine. Aged 36, Kholodenko has known more personal triumph and tragedy in the past decade than most of us experience in a lifetime. His playing pulls no punches.

The Rzewski Variations are preceded by Beethoven’s A-major set on a Russian theme, written for the wife of the Tsar’s chief intelligence officer in Vienna. To say that it falls short of Ashkenazy and Brendel is not to diminish Kholodenko. On the contrary, it places him in the very highest calibre of classical pianist and lights his path ahead. Never heard of him? Just listen to the Rzewski.

 

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About Author

Norman Lebrecht is a prolific writer on music and cultural affairs. His blog, Slipped Disc, is one of the most popular sites for cultural news. He presents The Lebrecht Interview on BBC Radio 3 and is a contributor to several publications, including the Wall Street Journal and The Standpoint. Visit every Friday for his weekly CD review // Norman Lebrecht est un rédacteur prolifique couvrant les événements musicaux et Slipped Disc, est un des plus populaires sites de nouvelles culturelles. Il anime The Lebrecht Interview sur la BBC Radio 3 et collabore à plusieurs publications, dont The Wall Street Journal et The Standpoint. Vous pouvez lire ses critiques de disques chaque vendredi.

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