Ralph van Raat, RZEWSKI: The People United will never be Defeated

John Schaefer

By John Schaefer

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

This recording is part of Naxos's "American Classics" series — and despite the composer having a name that most Americans are unfamiliar with and even fewer know how to pronounce, this is truly an American Classic. Rzewski (pronounced Zhev-skee) has been an important figure on the American music scene since the 1960s, but now, at age 70, is only beginning to reach a wider audience in his native country. A pianist himself, he has often incorporated his love of improvisation and live performance into his written scores. Political themes are on display as well, as in pieces like "Coming Together/Attica" and the title track of this disc. For this reason, Rzewski pieces often have a dramatic impact in live performance that is hard to capture on a recording. But the two compositions here, both from the mid-to-late 1970s, do well in both settings — with the result that they now rank among his best-known works.

A politically-charged American classic.

The hour-long title track, fortunately, is not split into multiple "tracks" by the record company as so many other long classical works are (I'm looking at you, "Rite of Spring"), and consists of a series of variations on Sergio Ortega's anthem of the Chilean anti-fascist movement of the early 1970s. There are a couple of other politically-charged melodies woven through, including an Italian revolutionary song (Italy became home to many Chilean exiles after the Pinochet coup) and a song by the German (and later East German) composer Hanns Eisler. But the now familiar Ortega melody is the glue that holds the work together, and the variations, ranging from the touchingly simple to the fiery and virtuosic, are the sort of tour de force that most composers strive for and so few achieve.

The second track, "The Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues," is basically the classical music equivalent of speed metal or thrash punk. It is in fact part of Rzewski's "Four North American Ballads," and while there is an echo of the blues to be found if you listen hard enough, this piece is a portrait of the relentless, motoric din of a southern textile mill. Rzewski uses pounding rhythmic figures to create an intense, almost ecstatic work that can both excite and frighten.