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Ian Dando
New Zealand Listener, September 2016

What makes Dutch pianist Ralph van Raat so good is his youth… Van Raat’s touch is precise, and the speed and placement of his fortissimo chordal outbursts amaze. His chains of repetitive pointillism break the sound barrier, and his whooshing crescendos are Guy Fawkes rockets with 101 tone colours. Rzewski’s variations make ideal listening for those who like to mix excitement with madness. © 2016 New Zealand Listener

Jens F. Laurson
Ionarts, May 2012

Ralph van Raat performing gives only one track for the theme and its 36 variations that vary so greatly from the aggressively abbreviated, to the fractured and dispersed, to dreamy tinkles of beauty casually scattered about like flower petals. Even the piano lid gets slammed.

The fourth of the Four North American Ballads—the Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues…—works up a storm that is totally irresistible before dropping some of that intensity for the lyrical, bluesy beginning of the second part. Van Raat goes far in that overwhelming direction and in some ways further than the composer. But he still remains surprisingly earthbound.

…Raat remains perfectly competitive and a great introduction to those who wish to poke in and see what Rzewski’s compositions are all about. © 2012 Ionarts Read complete review

Jens F. Laurson
MusicWeb International, February 2010

Greatness in art usually transcends politics. Shostakovich’s appeal extends beyond communists; Diego Rivera and Pablo Neruda aren’t only admired by socialists; Leni Riefenstahl has been (quietly) admired and copied, and even the quality of Arno Breker’s work can be acknowledged without raising too many eyebrows, these days. The intended (or unintended) political message takes a distant second place to the artistic quality with which it is conveyed. Certain Frederic Rzewski knew that, and while his own politics then favored the ‘well-meaning’ brand of totalitarianism, he studied Wagner to learn how to achieve maximum narrative effect. Rzewski’s music—“19th century grandeur with 20th century compositional techniques” as Ralph van Raat calls them—deserves to be wholeheartedly embraced.

“The People United Will Never Be Defeated!—36 Variations on ¡El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido!” in any case tells rather innocuously of the universally valid ‘human struggle for change’, in this case the struggle to resist the perfectly undemocratic forces hard at work to unseat the almost-democratic Salvador Allende. The theme for the Variation comes from Sergio Ortega who wrote the anthem of the same name to a pop-tune he picked up at the time. Rzewski’s hour-long treatment for piano takes this tune as its ever-recurring kernel and goes far and wide with it.

Unfortunately Naxos’s new recording with Ralph van Raat performing gives only one track for the theme and its 36 variations that vary so greatly from the aggressively abbreviated, to the fractured and dispersed, to dreamy tinkles of beauty casually scattered about like flower petals. Even the piano lid gets slammed. Given their similar politics, could it be that Rzewki was familiar with Marc Blitzstein’s 1920s Piano Percussion Music that asks the same of the performer?

The fourth of the Four North American Ballads—the Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues (background video here)—really works up a storm that is totally irresistible, before dropping some of that intensity for the lyrical, bluesy beginning of the second part. Van Raat goes far in that overwhelming direction and in some ways further than the composer. But he still remains surprisingly earthbound. Even Marc-André Hamelin, with his more accentuated, machine-like attack and Hyperion’s slightly better recorded piano sound, doesn’t come close to unleashing the fury that the repetition-and-increase can unfold live…like I last heard—with awe—in Severin von Eckardstein’s 2005 recital at the Kennedy Center.

The authentic struggle of Rzewski himself in this music is gripping; the ridiculous ease and devastating precision—almost beyond what the score indicates—with which Hamelin cruises through them breathtaking—in both works. Ralph van Raat falls between the two; closer to Hamelin but slightly heavier and the individual notes slightly less defined. Especially in the “Blues”, this undermines the feeling of being stuck in that factory, but it doesn’t undermine Raat’s recording. I prefer Hamelin, but given Naxos’ price advantage over Hyperion and the recording’s fine acoustic (the reverberation of the resonating strings is superbly caught), Raat remains perfectly competitive and a great introduction to those who wish to poke in and see what Rzewski’s compositions are all about. The beautiful 7-CD box (Nonesuch) of Rzewski playing his own compositions seems to be out of print, but the mp3 version is still available.

Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, August 2008

I asked to review this CD because I was struck by Eighth Blackbird’s performance on St Paul Sunday a few seasons back…I was impressed anew with Rzewski’s abilities and unique composing perspectives…let’s hope that posterity preserves it as simply “36 Variations on a Theme of Sergio Ortega.”

The actual melody is chipper, folk-like, and attractive, as you might assume such pieces to be, and mercifully presented without words. (The booklet doesn’t even bother to give them, thank goodness.)…the score calls for such unconventional assaults on the instrument as a right hand slap above the keyboard and a two hand slap under it, a few foot stomps as well as a shout and an occasional lengthy monotone whistle in the background. By the time you reach the end, your mind and emotions have been taken through a wringer. This is not a piece after which you listen to anything else for at least 10 to 15 minutes; better to allow your mind some time to absorb and process all of this musical information and achieve catharsis…pianist Ralph van Raat is certainly no slouch. He rips into Rzewski’s mental maelstrom with the passion of a true believer, and at the end sweeps us up in this musical tornado of a piece…there are very few recordings that I would not only recommend highly but also suggest that they be part of your desert-island collection. This is one of them.

James Manishen
Winnipeg Free Press, August 2008

The title work by left-wing American composer Frederic Rzewski (born in 1938) is a marathon set of variations written in 1975 based on a protest song by Chilean composer Sergio Ortega that became famous after being played by the iconic Chilean pop group Quilapayun.

At almost 63 minutes Rzewski’s work is a monster, throwing everything conceivable at a pianist in virtuoso challenges. The tune itself is gently melancholic, considering its subject, finding its way in varying degrees of cloaking through 36 variations covering a vast array of styles, from wistful blues through tangy modernism with much else in between, yet there’s a remarkable coherence in the many moods and scenes. One could well argue in favour of landmark stature as modern variation pieces go.

The People United…has had its share of stellar recordings—Marc-André Hamelin’s and the composer’s own DVD were the front runners before now. Dutch pianist Ralph van Raat brilliantly projects the pulse and character here. At a budget price and with Rzewski’s churning Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues as a pairing, this is quite the listen!

Jed Distler
Gramophone, July 2008

Rzewski going strong—a valuable film, this—plus a recommendable newcomer

Frederic Rzewski has recorded his huge and far-ranging variation set based on Sergio Ortega’s protest song The People United on three previous occasions. This fourth version constitutes a visual record of a performance in Fort Lauderdale a few weeks before Rzewski’s 69th birthday. Time has preserved Rzewski’s virtuosity, power and stamina extremely well. As he acknowledges in the booklet, the performance is not note-perfect yet its extraordinary concentration and sense of characterful contest from variation to variation far outweigh the blemishes.

In contrast to certain younger pianists who generically taper the theme and its various reiterations Rzewski takes his own “with determination” directive quite seriously, and plays up the march-like episodes’ resolute swagger for all they’re worth. Although he broaches the relentless motoric bravura of Vars 20, 21and 23 more cautiously than in the past he makes it work all the same.

By contrast, episodes lending themselves to a tender, lyrical attitude such as Vars 15, 18 and 25 or Var 27’s “minimalist” cadenza seem atypically brusque, even impatient.

Still, it’s instructive to observe how Rzewski obtains such wide variety of articulations and dynamic extremes with the utmost in physical economy. Perhaps this is due in part to his eyes being focused on the music, except, of course, during the brief improvised cadenza just before the final theme. The visual direction is of the textbook variety: easy on the eye but not especially imaginative. This video is a unique and valuable document no Rzewski fan or piano maven should miss.

More and more younger pianists appear to be taking up this monumental gauntlet. Marc-André Hamelin’s traversal (Hyperion, 7/99) helped bring The People United, into the limelight and here we have a budget-price contender from Dutch pianist Ralph van Raat, whose seasoned new-music credentials, virtuoso technique and natural affinity for Rzewski’s multi-faceted keyboard-writing are evident in nearly every section.

Van Raat’s ability to divine each variation’s specific character (as opposed to weaving them together in long lines) by way of tempo, his pinpointed differentiation with regard to legato and staccato articulation, and his keen ear for harmonic tension and release bear much similarity to Rzewski’s pianism. A good example of this can be found in Vars 13 and 15, where the theme’s elaborate, bluesy embellishments resonate in a more idiomatic, plain-spoken manner than Hamelin’s almost Chopin-like expressive devices. Likewise, the composer’s march rhythms transpire more defiantly (Var 26, for instance), although for panache, proficiency, control and speed, Hamelin’s superhuman dispatch of the central Vars 19–25 is in a class by itself. Unfortunately the entire piece occupies a single 62-plus-minute track, making it difficult to access individual movements with ease.

Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, the last of Rzewski’s Four North American Ballads, fills out this release and van Raat’s steady, incisive and powerfully projected reading stands with the best. The sound is as superb as van Raat’s well written and perceptive booklet-notes. Highly recommended.

Wayne Garcia
Playback Online, June 2008

Combining classical elements with modern influences and techniques to a highly accessible effect, Rzewski’s masterpiece delivers grandeur as well as whimsy, pathos with humor, and requires the player to execute virtuoso runs across the keyboard. A must-hear for fans of the keyboard and modern American music.

Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, April 2008

Frederic Rzewski’s (b. 1938) thirty-six variations for piano on the melody for El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido, or The People United Will Never Be Defeated, has three distinctions. First, it’s one of the most outstanding American solo piano pieces ever written. Second, as far as the theme and variations genre is concerned, it ranks with the best. And third, this is modern music that’s listener friendly and has immediate appeal.

Back in 1973 Chilean composer Sergio Ortega (1938–2003) heard a street-singer shouting, “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido,” and immediately came up with a tune to accompany the words. Set to Ortega’s melody this soon became an international protest song against any form of dictatorship. It had great appeal for the politically left-wing oriented Rzewski, who used it in 1975 as the basis for a monumental set of variations for piano. The piece lasts about an hour, and was written in response to a commission by American pianist Ursula Oppens. It’s subsequent popularity would seem to indicate she certainly got her money’s worth!

Rzewski has purposely written an extremely long and tortuously difficult piece, which is as much of a challenge for the most gifted of keyboard artists, as the music is representative of mankind’s continual struggle for a better existence. The piece begins with a simple statement of the theme, which is at first subjected to some rather straightforward augmentative and rhythmic transformations. But the composer’s extensive academic training (he studied with Walter Piston, Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt at Harvard and Princeton, as well as Luigi Dallapiccola in Italy) shows through in some of the highly sophisticated, complex variations that follow. Not only that, but the piece becomes increasingly demanding to play.

The variety of stylistic as well as formal musical devices the composer uses stagger the imagination. Folk music, blues, jazz and quotes from other revolutionary songs are thrown into the creative pot, and Rzewski even tips his hat to Arnold Schoenberg with a variation based on a twelve-tone row derived from the theme. A few special effects for the piano worthy of John Cage are also employed. These include slamming down the lid to represent a gunshot, and the repeated hammering of one key to symbolize an alarm bell. Our soloist also strums and dampens the strings with his fingers in the optional cadenza that’s performed in this recording just before the final triumphant reprise of the main theme.

As an encore, Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues from his North American Ballads (1979), ends the program. It’s a fascinating, highly demanding piece named for a song cotton mill workers used to sing. Brief repeated patterns of notes mimicking the sound of mill machinery begin the piece and reach “Excedrin Headache Number One” proportions—shades of Alexander Mosolov’s Iron Foundry (1926–28)! Gradually, the melody of the song appears in bluesy and then ragtime guise. But it’s soon obliterated with the return of that mechanical clatter made all the more intense by the use of tone clusters.

None of this music is for amateurs, and even most virtuosos wouldn’t attempt such an endurance test. Fortunately our soloist here, Ralph van Raat, rises to the occasion with performances that are not only technically impeccable, but totally capture every nuance of these emotionally charged, rather programmatic works. His success with these pieces was helped by his working closely with the composer over their proper interpretation. Consequently van Raat plays with a clarity, directness and heartfelt passion which should make them appealing to those normally wary of contemporary music, particularly at Naxos’ usual low price.

The piano is one of the most difficult instruments to capture digitally as evidenced by the many inferior sounding CDs of piano music out there. Fortunately this is not one of them. In fact it’s one of the best sounding piano discs you could ask for. Obviously the venue, microphones and digital-to-analogue conversion equipment used were ideally suited to the occasion, resulting in a CD that’s demonstration quality. But you’ll have to hear it to believe it!

Brian Wise, April 2008

CD Picks of the Week.

Composer and keyboard firebrand Frederic Rzewski has written numerous works steeped in left-wing politics but one stands out as a modern classic: “The People United Will never Be Defeated!,” his 1975 homage to Latin American liberation struggles. The piece is an hour-long set of variations on the protest song of the same name by Chilean composer Sergio Ortega, himself a leftist figure in South America. In a new recording, Dutch pianist Ralph Van Raat steers through the many different aspects of struggle, from angry modernism to nostalgic folk music and dense polyphony.

Robin Friedman, April 2008

Rzewski’s composition has achieved a wide following and has been recorded by many pianists, including Hamelin, Ursula Oppen, and the composer himself. It is a joy to have this music available on a new budget-priced Naxos CD performed by the Dutch pianist Ralph van Raat who has also prepared the informative liner notes. This CD should introduce many listeners to Rzewski’s music.

This CD is an outstanding way to get to know a great work of American piano music from the late 20th Century.

C. Michael Bailey
Blogcritics, April 2008

Concert music (what we are going to call “modern classical music” for this article) is alive and well in the United States and abroad. This is largely because of the efforts of Klaus Heymann and Naxos Records, who have created a new paradigm for marketing concert music, one that has left the big names (EMI, BMG) reeling. Naxos’ two prong attack is based on one, providing affordable compact discs of the standard repertoire recorded by smaller orchestras, ensembles, and lesser known solo musicians. The second prong is the label branching out into the lesser represented repertoire not typically addressed by the larger labels.

The People United Will never Be Defeated! / Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues by Frederic Rzewski is an example of the latter marketing prong of attack. Frederic Rzewski is a living American composer known for his dazzling piano technique, his militant composing, and his left-wing politics. The People United Will never Be Defeated! (1975) is an hour long set of 36 variations on the melody of El Pueblo Unido Jamas Sera Vencido by Chilean composer Sergio Ortega (1938–2003), a likewise leftist fixture in South America. “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues” is the fourth in four pieces composed by Rzewski under the title, Four North American Ballads (1979).

The pianist for this unusual recital is the Amsterdam trained Ralph van Raat. He also provides the liner notes for this release and opens them with the long acknowledged observation about modern classical music:

“If there has been a general opinion that musical modernism of the twentieth century has led a priori to inaccessibility of its compositions for a wide audience, then it is the composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski who has provided one of the strongest testimonies against this belief. A landmark in American piano literature, and perhaps one of the most important variation sets ever written, The People United Will Never Be Defeated! has a strong programmatic thread which is able to carry the listener through some very complex music in a natural way.”

Ralph van Raat goes on to prove both his stated point and his implied expertise in Rzewski’s music. The People United Will Never Be Defeated! is a mammoth piece. It begins with strongly emotive melody and harmonic progression upon which the composer elaborated in a manner exploring all of piano performance history.

The variations are presented in such a way that an untrained ear can recognise that these are variations on a theme even when the cognitive going gets tough. Think of J.S. Bach composing Goldberg Variations as a member of the Shining Path (el Sendero Luminosa). Pianist van Raat navigates the desperate variations expertly, steering from tonal to atonal, from assembly to disassembly, from acceleration to deceleration. The People United…offers just enough challenge to the listener to amply reward him or her in the end.

“Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues” is even more accessible if not more disturbing, taking its time to develop from a simple rocking two note figure into a low-register-driven juggernaut that might make the listener think of 19th Century logging or coal mining. A nervous pastoral interlude begins after a manically industrial section that could make the argument that it represents a weekend’s rest after work. However, all is not restful as the pastoral melodies become more dissonant.

Should the listener be bored with another Well-tempered Clavier or Hammerklavier Sonata, he or she need look no further than The People United Will never Be Defeated!.

C. Michael Bailey
Blogcritics, April 2008


The political Left of the 1970s may or not have been confined to history, but as with any such period, some of its artistic creations will endure. The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, Frederic Rzewski’s sequence of 36 variations on the song by Chilean composer Sergio Ortega, was composed in 1975 for his own wonderful pianism.

Ralph van Raat responds to these demands in impressive style. His sound is ideal: at once incisive and full. Moreover, he switches brilliantly between the music’s further-out extremes (for instance, the famous slamming of the piano lid that occurs in mid-Variation 11) and its long, wry, ruminative stretches. His deliver of Winsboro Cotton Mill Blues, too, legitimately links this eruptive piece to the driving toccata style of Prokofiev. The competition in The People United includes Marc-André Hamelin’s recording (phenomenal pianism, but much less sharply characterised); Rzewski himself, with matchless light and shade but recorded in rather brittle sound that not everyone will like. Van Raat’s complete package, then, is arguably the best.

Jeff Simon
The Buffalo News, April 2008

No pianist could ever dream of ever getting near the piece [Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated!] without a mind-bending combination of technique and passion. Rzewski—a virtuoso pianist—has recorded it in a glorious seven-disc boxed set of his piano music on Nonesuch. And Oppens’ version is available as well as Marc-Andre Hamelin’s. This one, though, by young Dutch pianist Ralph Van Raat is not only budget-priced but of staggering power and conviction.

J Scott Morrison (Middlebury VT, USA), April 2008

A Late Twentieth-Century Masterpiece

“One of the most brilliant sets of piano variations in the entire history of such works, regardless of its political implications (although there are plenty of those in the music as well). Now comes this new recording—at budget price—by Dutch pianist Ralph van Raat…Van Raat’s performance is probably closest to that of Oppens in that it tends to round off some of the work’s rough edges—one can hear them aplenty in Rzewski’s recording—but it also includes some appealing improvisation as indicated in the score as well… Impressive also are van Raat’s brilliant booklet notes in which he speaks in detail about the construction of the set. Even with the experience of thirty years’ familiarity with the work, I learned some things from his notes. For instance, I had never realized that the work also quotes another revolutionary song, Hanns Eisler’s ‘Solidaritätslied’…the CD is rounded out by a fine performance of one of Rzewski’s most popular pieces, ‘Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues’ from his Four North American Ballads.”

Mark Stryker, April 2008

A modern masterpiece, Frederic Rzewski’s monumental “The People United will Never Be Defeated!” (1975) is given an impressive new recording by Dutch pianist Ralph van Raat (Naxos). The piece, an hour-long theme-and-variations based on a Chilean revolutionary song, is so rich with polystylistic invention that it’s hard to wrap your arms around it. Romantic grandeur, folk song, jazz, minimalism, modal music, free improvisation, high modernist complexity and more all peacefully coexist.

From one angle, Rzewski (ZHEFF-skee) has written a late 20th-Century successor to the major variations by Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. But the music’s left-wing roots hint at a political agenda. Mostly, the work’s communicative spirit, rigorous structure and improvisatory mix of style say something profound about the freedom of contemporary composers—it’s not about what, it’s about how.

Van Raat’s technically assured and thoughtfully paced performance stresses the unity, clarified expression and beauty of the piece. He’s up for the improvised sections, too.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, April 2008

In modern terms it is a very worthy piece of craftsmanship offering the soloist a massive showcase for their virtuosity

Born in 1938 and a student of Milton Babbitt and Roger Sessions at the American universities of Harvard and Princetown, Frederic Rzewski, is a left-wing Socialist, whose politics shaped his enormous work for solo piano, The People United Will Never Be Defeated! Lasting over an hour, it is in the form of a theme taken from Sergio Ortega’s protest pop tune El Pueblo Unido Jamas Sera Vencido, and sets out to show the human struggle for change, though the music does not resolve the age old question—what to? Its length plunders every format of 20th century music from ‘pop’, tonality, atonality, serialism, minimalism, jazz, blues, folk and pseudo-romantic. It is incredibly difficult and its length will no doubt preclude it from a regular place on the concert repertoire. Yet Rzewski has to accept that music is music and, whatever the message he is attempting to communicate, it will either stand or fall on its intrinsic value. In modern terms it is a very worthy piece of craftsmanship offering the soloist a massive showcase for their virtuosity. The Dutch pianist, Ralph van Raat, has these accomplishments in abundance, playing with the utmost clarity those passages where the printed page must be black with notes. He also makes the work hang together so that you never actually feel the tremendous length of the score. As an ‘encore’ he plays Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues from the set of Four North American Ballads, an instantly attractive piece that is again a technically demanding score. It total a most interesting release with acceptable sound quality, but putting the main work on one long track is exceedingly unhelpful.

Dominy Clements
MusicWeb International, April 2008

This is another excellent Naxos release, and should be snapped up by anyone with even the mildest interest in 20th century piano music, or just piano music in general…Raat is dramatic, expressive, nimble, elegiac and virtuosic, and he has a fine feel for the variations with any kind of jazz idiom…The People United…can rightly be seen as one of the greatest set of variations since Bach penned his ‘Goldberg’ or Beethoven his ‘Diabellis’, and there is really nothing which should hold you back from exploring what is after all a relatively accessible and direct statement on a subject which concerns us as much today as if did when Pinochet was suppressing his opponents all those years ago.

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