Although the program notes don't make reference to it, the pictures in the booklet of Frederic Rzewski listening to and talking with German pianist Kai Schumacher at the recording session of The People United Will Never Be Defeated seem to suggest that the composer's involvement gives Schumacher's interpretation a certain authority. In fact, though, Schumacher's thoughtful, penetrating, thrilling performance in itself is more than adequate testimony to his sure grasp of Rzewski's intentions. Although his performance lasts almost 10 minutes longer than most other recordings of the piece, Schumacher's fiercely brilliant reading seems perfectly proportioned, and never lags. He conveys the ferocity of the political content of the Chilean protest song that Rzewski uses as his theme with white-hot fervor and galvanic intensity. At the same time, by playing with an expansive expressiveness that emphasizes the deeply personal nature of Rzewski's political convictions, he highlights the emotional complexity of the piece, embodied in its theme: a simple, lovely, immediately appealing melody that energized one of the most potent political resistance movements of the 20th century. It's no wonder that at the recording session, Rzewski, in his own irascible way, looks pleased.
A vexing issue with recordings of this work is the question of tracks. The work consists of a theme and a total of 36 meticulously structured variations divided into six groups of six variations each. While the piece is so viscerally engaging that listeners can enjoy it without understanding a whit about its form, a basic grasp of the complex relationships of its structures within structures can add immeasurably to its impact, and that is made easier if it is clear which variation is being played. Most recordings put each variation on a track, but sometimes the piece is recorded as a single track. Schumacher strikes a compromise, with a set of six variations on each track, emphasizing the unity and integrity of each six-variation group, and his program notes are clear about what is going on. For the listener who wants to closely follow the logic of the composer's architecture, it's easier if each variation has a track. In spite of that, Schumacher's inspired and passionate take on the piece and his virtuosic brilliance make this a version that can be very highly recommended. The sound is clean, bright, and present.