An increasing number of younger pianists have been taking up Frederic Rzewski’s monumental 1975 set of variations on Sergio Ortega’s Chilean resistance song The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, including Christopher Hinterhuber, whom collectors might know through numerous Naxos releases that include a cycle of Ferdinand Ries’ complete piano concertos.
Rzewski’s variations add up to a veritable tour-de-force of late-Romantic and 20th-century keyboard styles, from jagged, dissonant register leaps at the speed of sound and angular Shostakovich unison lines to waves of relentless rotary patterns, thumping marches, dramatic outbursts, and meditative minimalism. The piece works best when a pianist takes its diverse moods and textural shifts at face value, while keeping rhythms crisp, phrasings simple, and transitions alive with theatrical purpose.
Rzewski marks the opening theme “With determination”, reflecting the simple ardency needed to get the song’s defiant point across. But he does not indicate the tapered phrases, ritards at cadential points, and similar stock-in-trade interpretive gestures that Hinterhuber trots out in the name of expression, as if he were playing Chopin rather than Rzewski. However, Hinterhuber nails the melodic displacements in Variations 1 and 2 perfectly, and effortlessly negotiates the following four variations’ explosive runs and big, juicy chords. He doesn’t quite convey No. 7’s grace note effects so humorously as in the composer’s own performances or in Marc-André Hamelin’s recording, nor does he distinguish the contrast between No. 15’s improvisatory melody and the walking bass line underneath.
Does Hinterhuber play virtuosic variations faster than he can hear them? Surely Variation 23’s subtle textural shifts and harmonic sleights-of-hand are hard to absorb as they speed by in rapid-transit fashion. Right before the main theme’s return at the conclusion, Rzewski allows the performer to insert an optional cadenza, and Hinterhuber’s attractive improvisation features sparsely deployed chord clusters and lyrical passages. He fills out the disc with a smooth and sensitive reading of Bach’s Variations in the Italian Style.
Although Hinterhuber’s People United surpasses Kai Schumacher and Ralph van Raat for sheer pianistic razzle-dazzle, Hamelin’s musical choices usually come closer to the idiomatic mark. However, Rzewski’s own 1986 HatArt recording (out of print, but well worth hunting down) stands out for the composer’s singular keyboard voice and dramatic concentration.