Jed Distler reviews Ursula Oppens’ 2014 CD of Frederic Rzewski’s variations People United.

Frederic Rzewski wrote his monumental variation set based on Sergio Ortega’s Chilean resistance anthem song “El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido” for pianist Ursula Oppens, who premiered it in 1976 and made its first recording a few years later. It’s a fine performance in and of itself, yet Oppens’ stupendous new 2014 recording for Cedille surpasses the earlier version in every respect.
The opening theme, for starters, is more impassioned at its loud peaks, while the first six variations gain energy and character through Oppens’ heightened sense of voice leading. The dissonant grace note effect of Variation 7’s two-against-three rhythmic patterns is clearer than what many pianists make of it, while Variation 9’s counterpoint benefits from Oppens’ drier, more cogently contoured rethinking.

Distler ultimately gives the CD a thumbs up.

Overall, Oppens’ virtuosity, musicality, and insightful inspiration add up to the most gratifying People United on disc, alongside Rzewski’s own 1986 HatArt label recording (out-of-print on CD, but available as a download). The recorded premiere of Rzewski’s more recent and delightfully inventive Four Hands features Oppens and Jerome Lowenthal relishing the music’s tricky rhythmic hockets, airy contrapuntal traps, fleeting allusions to Romantic fare, and jazzy final fugue with masterful glee. No lover of 20th- and 21st-century piano music should miss this important release.

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