RZEWSKI plays Rzewski
Purcell Room, 14 November 2003

The People United Will Never Be Defeated
(36 Variations on a Chilean Song)

Stop the War (2003)

De Profundis, Melodramatic Oratorio for Solo Pianist Playing & Reciting

Two of the three works chosen for this recital were politically driven, and Frederic Rzewski (b.1938 Massachusetts; now living in Belgium) urged us from the platform to attend next week's Stop the War protest march during President Bush's visit to London . His recital, promoted as part of the London Jazz Festival - Rzewski's MEV brought classical & jazz avant-gardists together in the '60s - was poorly attended, perhaps having fallen between two stools?

It was preceded by a cheerful two hours and more opportunity to sample jazz groups in the QEH Foyer, a public session of BBC R3's In Tune programme. At the end, the large crowd there melted away and few crossed the floor to hear Rzewski in the Purcell Room.

As a piece of music per se, the 67 minutes span of his 36 Variations on Sergio Ortega's 'The People United Will Never Be Defeated' are fatally flawed by their slavish dependence upon elaborating a simple little tune which drums itself into our ears incessantly, but which does not have the same resonances for us as it held for the composer in the '70s.

First time heard, I wrote 'it grows on you'; this time not so! The work has often been compared with Beethoven's great variations, but though Rzewski puts himself through pianistic hoops, he does not stray far from the theme and lacks a comparable genius to subvert and elevate a trite tune as happens with Diabelli's little minuet (or he does not seek to do so) .

Freed from that four-square tonal strait-jacket, Rzewski's creative imagination took wing in his pianistic response to the bombing of Iraq in March this year; depicting how normal life went on alongside his conviction that it was essential to "Stop the War - or it will Stop Us". This new quarter hour piece for speaking pianist is bringing Rzewski's magnum opus The Road towards completion.

The evening culminated with an overwhelmingly moving performance of what is perhaps the greatest of all contributions to the tricky genre of melodrame, music to spoken speech. Demanding the rare combination of virtuoso technique and total lack of inhibition on stage, he guarantees that 'no conventional pianist will dare to go near it'. A profound social comment upon the politics of sexuality, his text from Oscar Wilde's letter from Reading Gaol benefitted hugely from state of the art sound diffusion with perfect balance between piano and voice, so that not a word was lost and the music never diminished the resonances of the text.

This masterpiece (and the more questionable Ortega variations) are included in a highly desirable 7 CD box set of Rzewski plays Rzewski (1975-1999)


© peter grahame woolf 2003