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John Adams: Complete Piano Music

Phrygian Gates
American Berserk
China Gates
Hallelujah Junction
for two pianos*

Ralph van Raat piano
Maarten van Veen, piano

Naxos American Classics 8.559285 [TT: 52 mins]

I had been hoping to hear Ralph van Raat again ever since his memorable 2000 recital in Amsterdam (see below).

This first CD for Naxos vindicates my expectations, and also confirms my interest in John Adams as a composer for piano ever since my trying to study his Phrygian Gates, which receives here a tremendous performance of sustained virtuosity (even managing to follow the score demands concentration!).

Described aptly in van Raat's liner notes as "a minimalist bored with minimalism", John Adams' development is traced in this CD from 1977 to 2001.

Adams introduced an emotional factor into the gradually changing tonal patterns of Phrygian Gates (that mode alternating with the Lydian), and later went on to display great variety in the two-piano Hallelujah Junction (1996), which develops from minimalist patterning via a "romantic-impressionistic passage" to music which becomes "completely jazzed up and sliced up to atonality" as it approaches its invigorating conclusion. I should have expected Hallelujah Junction to have become a staple of the duo-piano repertoire by now. American Berserk (2001) "recalls the fractured boogie-woogie style of Conlon Nancarrow".

It is all thoroughly entertaining and well worth exploring, especially by those (amongst them myself) who took against the earlier manifestations of the minimalist movement after the first excitement of Reich bursting on the scene wore off. A propitious Naxos debut.

Peter Grahame Woolf

Ralph van Raat is a new name to remember in the world of contemporary pianists. Still a student in Amsterdam, winner of the 1999 Gaudeamus Interpreters Competition, he is a phenomenon to be compared with the UK's Rolf Hind, who was also still a student when I reviewed him as a pianist of exceptional promise. Van Raat introduced his programme with relaxed aplomb and, without prior warning, prevailed upon three composers present to come down to the Ysbreker platform and talk about their pieces! (Seen&Heard Sept 2000)


RZEWSKI: The People United

RZEWSKI: The People United Will Never Be Defeated and Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues
Ralph van Raat, piano
Naxos 8559360

Also on Naxos American Classics, Ralph von Raat has recorded Frederic Rzewski's gigantic set of 36 multi-stylistics variations The People United Will Never Be Defeated! composed for Ursula Oppens , based on a trite little tune (c.f. Beethoven's Diabeli tune) which became an impassioned international symbol against any form of dictatorship.

van Raat, musicologist as well as now a top pianist, studied the work with the composer and has written for Naxos a thorough analysis of this work in a 'huge array of compositional styles' which has towards the end an 'improvisational cadenza' in which the pianist introduces unusual sound effects.

This work sounded relentless heard live in the Purcell Room some years ago, but Ralph van Raat varies the density and textures with immaculate voicing, so that the 62 minutes hold listener concentration easily.

The fill-up is the oft played and recorded Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, the most popular of Rzewski's 1979 North American Blues.

This work, demanding for player and listener, should be thought of alongside the Diabelli Variations and such pianistic marathons as Stevenson's Passacaglia on DSCH.


Rzewski The People United Will Never Be Defeated
played by the composer, Frederic Rzewski

VAI DVD4440, taped at a live performance in Fort Lauderdale, March 2007

Shortly after receiving Ralph von Raat's Naxos disc, here is a performance by the composer himself, filmed at the Miami Contemporary Music Festival.

Unpretentious in manner, as we remember him from the 2006 Rzewski Festival at Trinity College of Music, London, he settles down with his music on separate sheets on the stand (no turner-over) and plays with easy command the 36 variations on Ortega's 36 bar little revolutionary tune El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido - virtuosic but with none of the gestural excesses common to some of today's chart topping pianists...

Tony Adzinikolov's direction is unobtrusive and I am comfortable with the fading between camera angles which are not changed too often.

In the inset notes, VAI includes an illuminating apology "from the pianist to the composer", putting this account of one of his most important works in perspective and discussing the cult of perfection which he abhors.

That having been too late for inclusion in Nonsequiturs, I am pleased to reproduce it here in full since, unlike Lawrence A Johnson's introductory essay, it bears no copyright embargo - Rzewski's belief in "copyleft" is well known. Gradually, Musical Pointers has now covered this uniquely fascinating composer in depth
PGW June 2008

- - A Note from the Composer/Pianist

The pianist offers his humble apologies to the composer for the various embarrassing bloopers (especially in the first part). But after several viewings he decided that the redeeming features of the performance outweigh its defects; and anyway, it's a part of the esthetic (and the composer concurs in this) that the mistakes are to be left in. Sometimes it's interesting to see how the pianist handles a slipup; and it's also interesting to see how a ritardando or pause is actually due to the trouble the pianist is having turning a page, rather than for a more serious musical reason. But this unpleasant necessity of having to deal with unexpected problems is also part of what music is about. Much of what we admire in great performers - Rubinstein, for instance, or Schnabel - is not their superhuman note-perfect technique (boringly common nowadays), bur their human weakness, and their skill in recovering gracefully from a fumble. My partner, watching the DVD with me, said the camera should not be on the hands when there's an obvious mistake. On me contrary, that's exactly what's fascinating (for a piano-player, at least): How is this guy going to get out of this one? Frederic Rzweski