Frederic Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated!; Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues. Ralph van Raat, piano.
Scott Wheeler: The Construction of
Jaunty, intense, committed, flighty, concrete, abstruse – the works on these CDs are packed with sometimes-contradictory emotions that lend them substance even if the music itself will not be to all tastes. Frederic Rzewski (b. 1938), himself a pianist, created something of a piano monstrosity in The People United Will Never Be Defeated! The work runs more than an hour, including its optional improvisatory section, and is enormously difficult to play; yet at its heart lies a simple Chilean song, ¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido! – one of many written when Salvador Allende ruled Chile in the mid-1970s, a time dear to the hearts of avowed leftists such as Rzewski. The work is structurally as well as technically complex, and it is to Ralph van Raat’s credit that he manages to make its structure clear while surmounting its considerable challenges. The original tune has 36 bars, and Rzewski builds 36 variations on it – six groups of six. The propagandistic orientation of the piece, clear enough from its title (and likely to be off-putting to some), is further emphasized by occasional quotations from socialist songs, including (among others) Brecht’s “Solidarity Song.” Rzewski’s work is ultimately more impressive than involving: in addition to traditional pianism, it requires the performer to engage in such 20th-century touches (once de rigueur, now rather old hat) as slamming the piano lid and whistling along with the music. The variations themselves show impressive range and are both well contrasted (“Marcato” followed by “Dreamlike, frozen”) and effectively used to build on each other (“Crisp, precise” followed by “Relentless, uncompromising”). Yet this huge works lacks the immediacy and emotional appeal of the 10-minute Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, which fills out this CD. The shorter piece is the fourth and last of Rzewski’s Four North American Ballads, and is imitative/impressionistic music through and through. Rzewski makes the piano imitate the sound of the old cotton milling machinery in the mills of South Carolina, building a work of great power until the blues quietly emerge from within the factory sounds. Van Raat follows Rzewski’s instruction to play the mill-machine music as “expressionless and machinelike,” and this makes the emotional impact of the blues all the greater. There really is a song called Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, which is played near the end of Rzewski’s work and becomes its capstone.
Scott Wheeler’s The Construction of Boston, which can be performed as opera or oratorio, lasts not quite as long as Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated! and is as lucid and witty as Rzewski’s work is focused and intense. Wheeler (b. 1952) here offers a mostly tonal work with a very high reach indeed: it suggests that artists are engaged not just in creation but in Creation with a capital C. Three artists are given important roles: Dadaist sculptor Jean Tinguely (sung by tenor William Hite), painter and sculptor Robert Rauschenberg (baritone Christòpheren Nomura), and painter, sculptor and collage artist Niki de St. Phalle (soprano Sharla Nafziger). Rauschenberg creates the geographical setting of