American Classics - Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated / Raat

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In December 2006, Gramophone Magazine named Dutch pianist Ralph van Raat “one to watch.” Now, with his second recording for Naxos, van Raat tackles one of the most important works of the modern piano literature: Frederic Rzewski’s fiendishly difficult set of 36 piano variations, The People United Will Never Be Defeated!

The People United Will Never Be Defeated! was written in only two months on a commission from American pianist Ursula Oppens, after Rzewski met Chilean composer Sergio Ortega. Three months before Salvador Allende’s death, Ortega heard a street-singer shout El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido!, which made him think immediately of a tune to accompany these words. A day later, the pop group Quilapayun played the melody. Since then, the tune has become an impassioned international symbol against any form of dictatorship. It was no surprise that Ortega and the politically leftist Rzewski greatly impressed and inspired each other when they met in Italy a few years later, resulting in Rzewski’s vision of this emblematic song.

One of the striking elements of this variation work is its length; the composition is a marathon for both the listener and for the performer. The extensive duration of its 36 variations is symbolic of the human struggle for change. Any struggle feels long, with many hurdles obstructing the final goal. The variations themselves all symbolize the different phases and aspects of a struggle: this readily explains the huge array of compositional styles that Rzewski has used, from angry, highly-energized modernism, via melancholic references to blues, calculated dense polyphony and nostalgic folk-music to written-out free jazz passages. Rzewski incorporates contemporary piano effects in some variations, which he charges with an unusual dramatic meaning (for example, the sound of a slammed piano lid in Variation 11, reminds one of a gunshot). Throughout all variations the intervals of Ortega’s theme are always present, whether they are used as a twelve-tone row or as a basis for a fugal passage.

Also featured on this recording is the popular Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, which was written in 1979 as part of the set North American Ballads. The basis for this work is an existing song bearing the same name, which cotton-mill workers used to sing while working.

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8559360

  • UPC: 636943936023

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Frederic Rzewski

  • Performer: Ralph van Raat