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CD review: Rzewski’s Songs of Insurrection

Frederic Rzewski: Songs of Insurrection
Thomas Kotcheff, piano
Coviello Contemporary (COV 92021)
Release date: 2020

Giorgio Koukl | 18 FEB 2021

Generally considered as one of the most important American contemporary composers and to say it with the words of Nikolai Slonimsky: “a granitically overpowering piano technician, capable of depositing huge boulders of sonoristic material across the keyboard without actually wrecking the instrument”, Frederic Rzewski represents a technical and stylistic nightmare for any pianist who dares to tackle his music. This is particularly true for Songs of Insurrection (2016) which are here recorded for the first time. The work is divided into seven sections:

Die Moorsoldaten (Germany)
Katyusha (Russia)
Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around (USA)
Foggy Dew (Ireland)
Grândola, Vila Morena (Portugal)
Los Cuatro Generales (Spain)
Oh Bird, Oh Bird, Oh Roller (Korea)

At a certain point the composer invites the pianist to improvise on these themes, using this aleatory compositional technique in the tradition of the sixties, when Rzewski studied in Italy with Luigi Dallapiccola. He leaves the liberty to each interpreter to do so or not. Thomas Kotcheff has chosen to do two larger interventions and to add only few moments of improvisation in other. Probably the fact that nobody can produce a pseudo Rzewski on command was taken for granted, so this being the will of the composer, it’s ok if the improvised part can be immediately identified even without the help of the score. Said that it’s a blessing that Thomas Kotcheff is also a composer and a pretty good one.


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The central difficulty with all the piano music by Rzewski, besides its technical demands, which are quite vast, but in this specific case maybe a little less than in the well-known The People United Will Never Be Defeated! is the fact that nothing is really granted. The style seems to be a vast array of techniques going from Bach to jazz and blues, but in reality still remaining well anchored in Rzewski style; ironic, desecrating and sarcastic Groucho Marx playing piano “casual style” where the seven revolutionary songs are barely touched in a few bars and then abandoned forever. When it is possible to listen to the playing of the composer himself, this irreverent, ironic quality fully emerges, it is unfortunately less so with Thomas Kotcheff’s playing. For some strange reason the pianist has chosen to record on a Fazioli, maybe not the luckiest of choices as a good Grand Steinway D would have been more appropriate for the hard, direct and percussive sound requested by the work. This is my only remark to the technical side of the recording, being the sound engineer’s work made in a way near perfection.

Some of the songs request alternative piano techniques, like raps on the sound case, scratches and pizzicatos on the chords; all very difficult to capture but perfectly well integrated into the overall sound picture.


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This is a world premiere recording as well as a debut CD for the young pianist and it is a pretty daring one. Young pianists usually choose far more traditional repertoire to present themselves to the public. Choosing Rzewski is on one side more than understandable for a pianist who has dedicated most of his life to contemporary music, but is also at big risk to become just another album in the never ending cascade of new products. My sincere sympathy goes to Mr. Kotcheff who is willing to risk great energy, time and money in such a project.

The liner notes, signed by Kristi Brown-Montesano, are in reality less a useful description of the musical side of the project and more a political manifesto.

Pianist TThomas Kotcheff

Pianist Thomas Kotcheff

The artwork, a series of photos of Black Live Matters protests, signed by Chaz Niell , Julien James and J Pinder describes well the intentions of the producers.

The most genuine part of the whole project is the film “Making of,” where the young pianist in a very sympathetic and sincere way describes all the difficulties of the recording sessions, starting with strange noise which disturbed the sound and ending with the necessity to liberate the recording hall for evening concerts, only to reconstruct all the technique the day after, hoping the sound will stay the same.

It would be quite a challenge to arrive one day to hear a new work from his pen called “Songs of Resurrection,” where things are not more broken in parts, but put together to work again — and maybe better. ■


Giorgio Koukl is a Czech-born pianist/harpsichordist and composer who resides in Lugano, Switzerland. Among his many recordings are the complete solo piano works and complete piano concertos of Bohuslav Martinů on the Naxos label. He has also recorded the piano music of Tansman, Lutosławski, Kapralova, and A. Tcherepnin, amongst others, for the Grand Piano label. Koukl has most recently completed recording the solo piano music of Hungarian composer Tibor Harsányi.

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