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Frederic RZEWSKI (b.1938)
The People United Will Never Be Defeated! 36 Variations on a Chilean Folk Song El pueblo unido jamás sera vencido [59:46]
Ole Kiilerich (piano)
rec. Carl Nielsen Academy of Music, Odense, Denmark, May 2009.
BRIDGE 9392 [59:46]

The folksong on which these variations are based was written in June 1973 by Chilean composer Sergio Ortega with words by the Chilean folk group Quilapayún. The words in the title became a slogan used during the campaign to elect Salvador Allende as President of a left unity government. It was later made world famous by another Chilean folk group Inti-Illimani. Inti-Illimani toured internationally following the US-backed coup that supported the dictator Pinochet in toppling Allende who was killed in the assault on the Presidential Palace. Despite his last broadcast, during which gunfire can clearly be heard in the background, when he declared that because of his love for Chile he would neither be used as propaganda by the regime nor “take the easy way out”, the regime insisted he had committed suicide. Subsequent investigations have vigorously defended this assertion.
 
The song has become a kind of anthem for groups around the world conducting their own struggles against oppressive regimes and has thus been used in its original or adapted form by such groups in Portugal, Iran (today as part of their Green movement), the Philippines, and many other countries. It has also been paraphrased and even appears in a rap version as an entry for the Ukraine in the Eurovision Song Contest in 2005.
 
It was in 1975 that the American composer Frederic Rzewski wrote these 36 variations and these have been recorded by Ursula Oppens who had commissioned the work and to whom Rzewski dedicated it. Rzewski himself also recorded it as have Stephen Drury, Marc-André Hamelin, Ralph van Raat and now Danish pianist Ole Kiilerich. What is evident from the start is that this is a monumental work requiring huge stamina on the part of the pianist and an elephantine memory. In the booklet notes Kiilerich writes that when rehearsing this work before a concert performance there is no need to do any general practising of scales and etudes since the piece “massages all the muscles in both hands and brain” and I can well imagine that after hearing it. The tune itself is a simple one and it is a measure of the composer’s ability to have fashioned something as broad and far reaching as these 36 variations from such relatively scant material. There is no doubt, for example that Beethoven could have done it; nevertheless the waltz that Anton Diabelli challenged composers to write a set of variations on was considerably more substantial than this little folk song. The variations cover a huge amount of ground and styles of music within its compass including jazz (variation 13), folk (e.g. variation 29) and popular music and also include two other references at various stages; to the Italian revolutionary songBandiera Rossa (variation 14) and to Hans Eisler’s 1932 antifascist Solidaritätslied (variations 26 and 30). The Italian reference is included to highlight the fact that Italian families took in refugees from Chilean fascism and Eisler’s song to point out that parallels with today exist in the past and we must learn from them. Rzewski writes in a short introduction that the “extended length of the composition may be an allusion to the idea that the unification of the people is a long story and that nothing worth winning is acquired without effort”.
 
Kiilerich writes that the work is “an ode to socialism”. There are critics who have dismissed it as mere left-wing agitprop but that criticism is as valid as writing off Wagner as fascist propaganda, which others do. There are many examples in music of compositions inspired by political events and the only valid judgement is whether or not they are worth listening to. This work most certainly is although it is a great deal more than that. I cannot comment on other performances since this is my first encounter with the work but it seems to me that the partnership of it here with Kiilerich’s interpretation is simply superb music-making of the highest order. His own cadenza is a perfect sum of the parts.
 
This is a work that demands attention. Kiilerich finishes his notes by saying that the work reminds him of a time when “ideologies were allowed to be spoken out loud with grand words and honest devotion, rooted in the strong belief in a better world”. Despite his feeling that we are locked into a time when “all we hear about is bench marking, consumption, loans and crisis” I can see stirrings of a new age of hope heralded by the Arab Spring, because the concept embodied by the song is always true, The People United Will Never Be Defeated!  

Steve Arloff 

 

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