Corey Hamm Joins The Elite In Rzewski

Review by: David Hurwitz


Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

Corey Hamm is a professor of piano at the University of British Columbia School of Music. He has made a career-long study of Rzewski’s amazing set of variations on The People United Will Never Be Defeated, and it shows. There are, arguably, three supremely great recordings of this modern masterpiece: the composer’s own on Hat Art (way out of print), Stephen Drury’s on New Albion, and Marc-André Hamelin’s on Hyperion. This version joins them. Some also swear by Ursula Oppens’ premiere recording, now on Piano Classics, but notwithstanding her status as the work’s dedicatee, it has always struck me as comparatively under-characterized.

Unlike some performances, Hamm does not play an improvised cadenza at the end of the work, nor does he take advantage of all of the other opportunities to “wing it” that Rzewski offers now and then (although he does whistle very nicely in Variations 11 and 35). What he does do is play the score with great attention to those subtle details of accent and articulation that really bring a performance to life. Right at the opening, from bar 5, Hamm’s attention to Rzewski’s staccato dots in the left-hand accompaniment swings the tune with a gently idiomatic flair.

There are many other similar touches: the precisely judged funeral march rhythm in Variation 9, followed by the wacky glissandos and dynamic extremes in Variation 10 (truly “recklessly,” as Rzewski asks); the sultry, bluesy Variation 14; the clarity of the bass in the passacaglia-like Variation 17; the beautifully sustained and shaped long twenty-seventh variation; and in general Hamm’s way of holding together each sixth variation while still reminding us that it consists of bits of the previous five. This is great, and more than that, knowing playing.

For anyone who doesn’t know the work, a bit of background may be in order. Rzewski organizes the piece in six cycles of six variations. The last variation in each cycle recapitulates the previous five, except that in the last cycle each variation summarizes all of the variations in the same position in the previous five groups. This strategy gives the piece a powerful sense of unity despite its riotous variety, and it is precisely this quality that Hamm captures so well. Add to that absolutely gorgeous sonics, rich and natural, and the result is simply one of the best versions of this remarkable work.

I’m not giving up my other recordings, but this one certainly stands with them. Like those other great variation sets to which Rzewski’s work deserves comparison (Bach’s Goldbergs and Beethoven’s Diabellis), the work sustains many interpretations, and it’s a joy that we have so many of such high quality.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Drury (New Albion); Hamelin (Hyperion)

  • Corey Hamm (piano)

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