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Hyperion Records

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Track(s) taken from CDA67077
Recording details: August 1998
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: April 1999
Total duration: 56 minutes 49 seconds

'Never likely to be equalled, let alone surpassed … I would urge all readers to hear this extraordinary recording' (Gramophone)

'My new piano CD of the week—possibly of the year—has to be Marc-André Hamelin's extraordinary traversal of the 36 variations on a Chilean song' (The Independent)

'Hamelin is more than a match for this music; his art lifts it off the page and releases its intense communicative power.' (Hi-Fi News)

'A truly riveting piece of contemporary piano music' (The Evening Standard)

'Canadian super-virtuoso Marc-André Hamelin has done it again, giving another rarely heard masterpiece of piano repertoire the public attention it deserves' (Billboard)

'Not to be missed on any account' (Musical Opinion)

'Virtuose et artiste accompli, Marc-André Hamelin les laisse se chamailler avec une superbe et une énergie aussi aristocratiques qu'endiablées.' (Le Devoir)

The People United Will Never Be Defeated!
1971-1976 based on the Chilean song !El Pueblo Unido Jamás Sera Vencido!

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Arguably Rzewski’s best-known piano opus, The People United Will Never Be Defeated! is a set of thirty-six variations based on the Chilean song ¡El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido! and stands as a watershed achievement during the time from 1971 to 1976 when Rzewski was living in New York, a period when the composer became more and more concerned with the question of language. ‘It seemed to me’, Rzewski wrote in a programme autobiography, ‘there was no reason why the most difficult and complex formal structures could not be expressed in a form which could be understood by a wide variety of listeners. I was also concerned with what appeared to me to be a crisis in theory, not only in music but in many different fields, including science and politics: the absence of a general theory to explain phenomena and guide behavior. I explored form in which existing musical languages could be brought together.’

The song on which the variations are based was written by Sergio Ortega, a Chilean composer whose work was part of the cultural movement inspired by the formation of the Unidad Popular in 1969, together with the left coalition under Salvadore Allende’s leadership. Its music represented a fusion of classical forms with popular melodies, or, conversely, employed traditional folk instruments in classically orientated contexts. Three months before Augusto Pinochet’s military coup, Ortega heard a street singer in front of the Palace of Finance in Santiago shouting ‘¡El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!’, a well-known Chilean chant for social change. The chant stuck in Ortega’s mind. A few days later he sat at his piano, and the tune emerged in a flash. The song was performed in public two days later by the group Quilapayun and quickly became an anthem for the Chilean Resistance.

Similarly, Rzewski’s variations were written at white heat during September and October of 1975, in response to a commission from pianist Ursula Oppens for a work to complement Beethoven’s ‘Diabelli’ Variations in a recital at the Kennedy Center. Little in Rzewski’s creative output up until that time hints at the determined eclecticism, breadth of scale, and unbridled, passionate virtuosity infusing every bar of this ambitious piece. At the same time, the work is specifically, even rigorously structured. The theme, for instance, contains thirty-six measures (bars), followed by thirty-six variations. There is a modulation pattern which takes the D minor theme and transposes it up a fifth with each subsequent variation, thereby covering all twelve minor keys. The variations are partitioned into groups of six, described by the composer thus:

Six cycles, each of which consists of six stages, in which different musical relationships appear in order: 1. simple events; 2. rhythms; 3. melodies; 4. counterpoints; 5. harmonies; 6. combinations of all these. Each ‘cycle’ embodies a distinct, albeit flexible character or emotional quality linked to its corresponding ‘stage’. Thus the first six variations serve as a kind of exposition, for which the theme is displaced, inverted, paraphrased, and distilled across the keyboard’s entire range. A wide variety of dynamic, pedalling and articulation indications come into play. In Variation 5 the composer requests a mode of attack for which one plays chords staccato, then catches the harmonic overtones with the pedal. Rhythmic challenges dominate cycle 2, from the caustic grace-note-like triplets in Variation 7 to Variation 10’s pointillistic out­bursts. The third cycle (Variations 13 to 18), is governed by a lyrical, folk-like modality, while the fourth’s angular rhythms and bravura passagework (Variations 19 to 24) chart darker, virtuosic waters. Cycle 5’s variations are the freest in form, encompassing the quiet, aching chordal essay of Variation 25, Variation 26’s iron-clad march rhythms and the haunting Variation 27—an extended minimalist foray that commences with meditation and ends with mania. The final six variations summarize all that has come before, like familiar images being conjured up out of nowhere, only to disintegrate into the maelstrom of ideas pulling and tugging at each other. After the sixth cycle, the pianist has the option of improvising a cadenza. Mr Hamelin takes Rzewski up on his offer, unleashing a brilliant flurry of extemporized music before settling into the theme’s triumphal recapitulation.

In addition to the theme, two other songs of political import interweave throughout the variations. One is the Italian revolutionary song Bandiera Rossa, which refers to the Italian people who, in the 1970s, provided refuge for victims of Chilean fascism, and the second is Hanns Eisler’s 1932 anti-Fascist Solidaritätslied which also figures in Marc-Andre Hamelin’s cadenza.

from notes by Jed Distler © 1999

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