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Artillery Row Lebrecht's Album of the Week

Playing that pulls no punches

Kholodenko is in the elite of classical pianists

Frederic Rzewski: The People United Will Never Be Defeated (Quartz Music)


The American composer, living in Italy until his death last year, was prompted by the 1973 overthrow of Chilean president Salvador Allende to compose thirty-six variations on the fallen regime’s populist campaign song, “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido”. 

Despite lasting almost an hour and containing episodes of atonal fury, the piece was quickly and frequently recorded, first in 1976 by its dedicatee Ursula Oppens and later by the German pianist Igor Levit. In all, there are a dozen recordings. None has captured my attention so compellingly as this new release, by the 2013 Van Cliburn winner, the Ukrainian pianist Vadym Kholodenko.

Kholodenko is the first to conceive the Rzewski set as a unity

Rzewski’s score expands classical theme-and-variations method by interleaving two additional, politically related themes: the Italian “Bandera Rossa” and Hanns Eisler’s “Solidarity Song”. Each acts as a breaker on the original theme, clocking in as variations 13 and 26, both challenging the existing texture and advancing it. The music goes from an almost Schubertian delicacy to Webernian dissonances that would make a half-dead house cat sit up and think. Variation 15 calls to mind the atmosphere of Arlo Guthrie’s hobo’s lullaby. Variation 18 is pure cabaret.

Kholodenko is the first pianist I have heard who conceives the Rzewski set as a unity, interpreting it as a linear descendant of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, with added passion and rage. Although he made the recording a year ago in St Petersburg, one cannot help hearing anticipations of the present madness between Russia and Ukraine. Aged 36, Kholodenko has known more personal triumph and tragedy in the past decade than most of us experience in a lifetime. His playing pulls no punches.

The Rzewski Variations are preceded by Beethoven’s A-major set on a Russian theme, written for the wife of the Tsar’s chief intelligence officer in Vienna. To say that it falls short of Ashkenazy and Brendel is not to diminish Kholodenko. On the contrary, it places him in the very highest calibre of classical pianist and lights his path ahead. Never heard of him? Just listen to the Rzewski.

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