This set of variations for piano is probably US composer Rzewski’s best-known work. His list of teachers reads like a Who’s Who
of American music in the 1950s and 1960s, but despite teaching visits to the States Rzewski has made his home in Europe. He’s Professor of Composition at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Liège, Belgium.
As for the Chilean song on which this work is based, it’s rooted in the Allende years of the early 1970s. After the Pinochet coup in September 1973 it became something of a rallying cry for those opposed to the new regime. Remarkably, it’s since resonated with revolutionaries and exiles the world over.
Rzewski dedicated The People United Will Never Be Defeated!
to the pianist Ursula Oppens, who recorded it for Vanguard in 1978; this pioneering performance has now been reissued on Piano Classics. Since then several keyboard virtuosi have recorded the piece, whose expressive range – rhythms, colours and dynamics – would strike fear into the hearts of all but the most fearless interpreters. Among the latter are Ralph van Raat on Naxos and Marc-André Hamelin on Hyperion; both deliver highly charged and very individual performances, captured in superb sound.
The wild card here is the Danish pianist Ole Kiilerich, who is new to me. That said, he certainly has the right credentials for this work, as he specialises in contemporary music and has studied with Ursula Oppens in Boston and Stephen Drury in New York. The latter has recorded The People United
for New Albion. I’ve chosen to compare this new recording with those by Oppens, van Raat and Hamelin. Oppens and Kiilerich don’t offer any fillers, whereas van Raat and Hamelin include two each of the North American Ballads
In the spirit of BBC Radio 3’s Building a Library
we must whittle down the shortlist. The first to go has to be Oppens, whose whip-cracking performance is compromised by bright, shallow sonics and – on my copy at least – audible drop-outs. There’s no denying the authority of her reading – it’s an angular, almost brittle soundscape – but one only has to hear Kiilerich et al
to realise she has been eclipsed when it comes to the finer details and nuances of the piece. True, Kiilerich, well recorded, is something of a slow burner. At first I felt he was a little studied, but subsequent auditions reveal a reading of uncommon sophistication and insight. His rhythmic control is exemplary, dynamics are subtly graded and the whole performance has a warmth and generosity of spirit that’s most appealing.
By contrast van Raat brings out more of the score’s fractured/fractious qualities, while Hamelin offers the surest and most compelling narrative. The latter has remarkable fidelity and presence as well. That said, the Bridge engineers really do capture the richness and weight of Kiilerich’s Steinway D. There’s so much to admire in this performance; from those dancerly tunes and repetitive – yet beguiling – phrases to the sudden shouts and lid slamming, Kiilerich never fails to entrance or entertain. Indeed, there are times when I’ve felt the piece comes close to outstaying its welcome; that’s emphatically not the case here.
Returning to van Raat and Hamelin, it’s impossible not to respond to their bravura playing; the muscularity and momentum of their readings makes a fine contrast with Kiilerich’s, which is sensitively shaped and beautifully coloured. This is immensely seductive music-making, and I just know I shall return to Kiilerich again and again. It’s so often the case that apparently self-effacing performers and performances are elbowed aside by the more attention-grabbing ones; it’s also true that the latter are likely to give up all or most of their secrets at first hearing. By contrast, Kiilerich unearths and illuminates something new each time, and that’s very rare indeed.
Time to tot up the scores; before Kiilerich I would have given Hamelin and van Raat the most points, but now I’m not so sure. This triumvirate benefits from good, modern sound, but what could swing it for some buyers is the fillers; in van Raat’s case these are even more desirable than the main work. No, I’m going to take the coward’s way out and endorse all three recordings, as each has something valuable to say about this perennially fascinating piece.
Illuminating, even revelatory; Ole Kiilerich is a pianist to watch.