Tuesday 12 January 2021

Virtuosity and Protest: Frederic Rzewski's Songs of Insurrection receives its first recording

Frederic Rzewski Songs of Insurrection; Thomas Kotcheff; Coviello Classics

Frederic Rzewski Songs of Insurrection; Thomas Kotcheff; Coviello Classics

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 8 January 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The American pianist/composer applies his virtuoso technique to seven protest songs, musical meditations on protest transferred to the concert hall

American pianist and composer Frederic Rzewski's piano music often includes references to political matters. His best known work is perhaps the piano solo The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, which uses a song by Sergio Ortega inspired by socialist Chileans protesting the military takeover, whilst Coming Together, for narrator and ensemble, uses text by Samuel Melville—one of the leaders of the revolt against police brutality at Attica Prison in 1971. Often there can be an historical element to the work, so that  Four American Ballads [recorded by Adam Swayne on his disc (Speak to me), see my review] were inspired by the folk singer and social activist Pete Seeger, and Rzewski bases each ballad on an American popular, traditional work or protest song. But Rzewski combines these elements with music that requires a powerful virtuoso technique; Rzewski's own piano technique is evidently stupendous. It is as if Franz Liszt had applied his considerable piano technique to creating works based on the street songs from the Paris Commune.

On a recent disc from Coviello Contemporary, Los Angeles-based pianist and composer Thomas Kotcheff performs Frederic Rzewski's 2016 piano solo, Songs of Insurrection, a substantial seven-movement work based on a variety of songs associated with different protest movements in different eras. Amazingly this is the work's first recording.

The title comes from Walt Whitman's Songs of Insurrection, first published in the 1871 Leaves of Grass and the opening lines are:

STILL, though the one I sing, (One, yet of contradictions made,) I dedicate to Nation- ality, I leave in him Revolt, (O latent right of insurrection! O quenchless, indispensable fire!)

Given the date these lines link to the American Civil War, but perhaps also the continuing ferment of post-Revolutionary France and the European year of revolutions, 1848.

Frederic Rzewski
Frederic Rzewski (Photo from I Care if You Listen)
Rzewski places a superscription at the top of the score, more lines from Whitman, 'Vivas to those who have fail'd', and each movement is based around a song of protest, each song being a musical avatar for a group of unknown heroes. So we have 

  1. Political prisoners in a Nazi labour camp who performe Die Moorsoldaten (Peat Bog Soldiers) in 1933
  2. Matyer Blanter's patriotic song Katyusha (1938) which inspired the Soviet Russians during the Great Patriotic War, yet the song (with different words) also became a rallying cry for anti-Fascist Italian partisans
  3. The spiritual, Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'round which developed into a freedom anthem  of the American civil rights movement in the 1960s
  4. Irish Republicans fighting for Irish independence used The Foggy Dew, not the English folk-song but a song about the 1916 Easter Uprising with a melody based on a traditional Irish song
  5. Zeca Alfonso's 1971 song Grandola, Vila Morena, which had been banned by the Portuguese regime, was broadcast on 25 April 1974 as a sign to begin the pro-democracy Carnation Revolution in Portual
  6. During the Spanish Civil War the song Los Cuatro Generales, which was based on a popular version of a song by Federico Garcia Lorca, vowed fearless resistance to Fascist attacks
  7. The oldest song in this list, Oh Bird, Oh Bird, Oh Roller arose with the Gabo Peasant Revolt in Korea in 1894

The record makes the link between the movements and the songs explicit, placing the song names within the movement titles but in Rzewski's original the movements are simply numbered, as if he wants to put as at one remove.

And what Rzewski does not do is treat these as simply inspiring ballads, he is not trying to bring street music into the concert hall, he transforms it in the process. So, in each of the seven movements the song on which the movement is based is first presented, simply and directly, and then Rzewski applies a series of dazzling transformations to the music. There are a wide range of styles here, even within individual movements, from neo-Baroque to the Blues to contemporary atonality. In each movement, Rzewski is exploring the possibilities of each song, in the tradition of 19th century composer performers. Yet what Rzewski's treatments do is also bring out the links between the songs; when reduced to basic notes (without harmonies) and then transformed, we can hear the connective tissue which makes these songs part of a continuum of protest, re-created for the concert hall.

When Liszt made transcriptions of Schubert's songs, lacking the changes in emotional temperature which the words could bring, Liszt applied a variety of sophisticated piano techniques to the music to change the emotional temperature between verses. And that is what Rzewski is doing here, and as a pianist he sees himself in this 19th century tradition. 

Another element is improvisation, which Rzewski welcomes but in a note in the score he emphasises that it is optional and should never be pre-planned. We are not told how much improvisation Kotcheff brought to the score, but as composer himself, we can surely assume that he could perform the music with that sort of freedom. 

Thomas Kotcheff (photo Aaron Holloway-Nahum)

Kotcheff certainly takes this music in his stride, and whilst the piano technique required seems to hold no terrors for him, he does not make the performance about his technique but about the music. And Rzewski is, as ever, seductive and dazzling with each movement full of imaginative gestures. It is a substantial work, lasting slightly over 70 minutes with the final movement (based on the Korean song) lasting 16 minutes. Yet the piece never feels too long.

The record booklet includes three articles, one about the music and the protest songs on which the movements are based, plus two further articles looking in greater depth at protest movements particularly in the light of modern movements like Black Lives Matter.

Frederic Rzewski (born 1938) - Songs of Insurrection (2016)
Thomas Kotcheff (piano)
Recorded 26-28 February 2020, Zipper Hall, Colburn School, Los Angeles
COVIELLO COV92021 1CD [70.42]

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