‘Insurrection Songs’: Rzewski Redux, Only This Time It’s Global

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Frederic Rzewski’s mammoth solo piano work ‘Songs of Insurrection’ is in the same political spirit as the composer’s masterpiece ‘The People United Shall Never Be Defeated!’ (Photo: AKAMU Music Productions)

Rzewski: Songs Of Insurrection. Thomas Kotcheff (piano). Coviello Classics COV 92021.

DIGITAL REVIEW – Frederic Rzewski – composer, piano virtuoso, and supporter of leftist causes – made his biggest impact in all three departments with one mighty piano work in 1975. That would be The People United Will Never Be Defeated!, a gigantic set of 36 variations and an improvisation upon a Sergio Ortega song from Chile’s Salvador Allende era that became a rallying point for the resistance to the subsequent Augusto Pinochet dictatorship.

It has been compared to J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations for its encyclopedic length, inventiveness upon a humble tune, and exploitation of the virtuosic outer limits of the acoustical keyboards of their times. In that sense, it represents the 20th century as the others do the 18th and 19th centuries, respectively.

A little more than 40 years on, an even larger Rzewski solo piano marathon with a political slant has emerged – Songs Of Insurrection, which, at 75 minutes long, is a full 20 minutes longer than The People United. This one, however, is different in structure and not as easy to grasp. With a title springing from Walt Whitman’s poem of the same name, this piece has seven parts, each based on musings upon protest songs from seven countries.

Germany’s “Die Moorsoldaten” begins with a simple marching tune that soon drifts off into its own quizzical, searching set of musings, outbursts, and a triumphant close. Russia’s “Katyusha” has a melancholic air in a downcast, tumbling Russian way, with the penultimate bars near the end injecting, I think, a touch of Shostakovich.

The most familiar tune may be the American civil rights anthem “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” but Rzewski doesn’t really state it; he goes around it as a jazz musician in the middle of a solo might; we finally hear it, sort of, in bass octaves later on. We get a little bit of the tune of Ireland’s “Foggy Dew” (no relation to the English “Foggy Foggy Dew” that Burl Ives championed) before the piano revs up into a toccata; it keeps going back and forth between agitation and reflection.

With Portugal’s “Grândola, Vila Morena,” Rzewski brings extended piano techniques into the picture, starting and closing with tappings and knockings on the piano’s case, with cryptic solemnity and anguish in spurts in between. Spain’s “Los Cuatro Generales” is loosely organized and episodic in content, hard to follow, with maybe some Debussy-influenced harmonies near the start. The finale, Korea’s “Oh Bird, Oh Bird, Oh Roller,” shifts the musical language across the Pacific with more percussive thumps, plucked piano strings, and a East Asian-flavored single line, leading to flashy trills up high that descend the keyboard.

If all of this sounds incredibly eclectic and cosmopolitan, when heard whole, it really isn’t, for the overall mood is reflective and diffuse, devoid of the unifying variation form and agitating fervor of The People United, and better sampled in small doses than in one big gulp. There are options for improvisation as the performer chooses, but without a score in hand, and booklet notes that pay more attention to politics than the music, it’s difficult to tell where those passages occur.

Cutting edge: Sarah Gibson and Kotcheff form the piano duo HOCKET.

The young pianist du jour, Thomas Kotcheff, has become a fixture on the crowded Los Angeles piano scene, being one half of the HOCKET piano duo and now a regular performer on the Piano Spheres series at the Colburn School of Music’s Zipper Hall. It was there where the recording was made, and Kotcheff nails the piece’s challenges and rides out its weaker stretches while treated to excellent sound and acoustics.

Songs Of Insurrection may have a long shelf life as far as politics are concerned, having been unveiled in 2016, a couple years after Black Lives Matter materialized and four years before the movement gathered tremendous steam following the George Floyd killing. But I doubt if Rzewski, or Kotcheff, could have predicted that after this recording’s release, a real insurrection on the Capitol in Washington, D.C., would occur Jan. 6 – and that it would come from the right wing, not at all where Rzewski is coming from. History has a funny way of boomeranging sometimes.