Album du jour: Ursula Oppens & Jerome Lowenthal, “Frederic Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated! • Four Hands”

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It’s been twelve hours since my last hearing of the major work on this great new album, and I’m still shaking as I play it back in my head.

One definition of a masterpiece is a piece that both speaks for its time and stands up to the test of time. By that and many other definitions, Westfield, Mass. native Frederic Rzewski‘s  1975 “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” qualifies as a masterpiece. A set of 36 variations on a Chilean protest anthem (read more about the work and download the album and booklet here), “The People United” is practically as rigorous in structure as Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” and as eclectic as a late-night, free-form Pacifica radio show of the ‘seventies, though much more entertaining. Imagine inviting such varied pianists as Oscar Peterson, Cecil Taylor, John Cage, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Charles Ives, Glenn Gould and Ray Charles to take turns with their own variations, and you get the idea.

Now, one might (I would say should) take issue with the work’s obvious political content — it qu0tes, with evident approval, Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler’s “Solidarity Song” and the Italian communist anthem “Bandiera rossa” (“Red Flag”) — but that’s the zeitgeist for you, as anyone who was near a college campus at the time will recall. If that’s what it took to get Rzewski’s juices flowing, then it worked — “The People United”is a tour-de-force of non-stop creativity, and the kind of artwork that leaves one astonished once again at the capacity of human achievement.

That last phrase goes as well for Ursula Oppens, the work’s dedicatee, who gave the premiere and made the first recording (which knocked me and many other listeners on our collective backsides) of “The People United” going on forty years ago. In the meantime, there have been over a dozen other recordings of it, some very fine, and two, by the composer himself (one audio, one video), essential. Yet another new recording by Russian-German pianist Igor Levit (part of a 3-CD set also containing Bach’s “Goldberg” and Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations!!) will be out by the end of the month. Oppens’s remake, beautifully produced and engineered, is vital, deeply felt, and as profound an engagement with the work as I’ve ever heard. It’s the kind of performance Richard Goode would give if he ever played it — and I mean that as a high compliment.

An appealing new piano duet called “Four Hands” follows “The People United”as dessert — or, perhaps, as anti-climax. Never mind. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be so moved and, yes, shaken by the album’s pièce de resistance that you won’t want anything but silence when it’s done. Most urgently recommended.

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