Cornelius Cardew was one of the leading composers of the British avant-garde scene in the '60s and '70s and a founding member of such influential groups as AMM and the Scratch Orchestra. While his earlier work dealt with, among other concerns, elaborate graphic scores (culminating in his masterwork, "Treatise"), later in his brief career he began to seriously question his own musical methodology. A committed socialist, Cardew, in a very similar manner as Frederic Rzewski, found it increasingly difficult to reconcile his populist political views with the extremely abstract music he was producing, music which the "working man" could presumably never learn to appreciate. Thus, to the consternation of many fans and fellow musicians, he did a veritable about-face and began composing music based on folk themes and worker's songs, still utilizing effects and variations out of the modernist vocabulary but grounded in relatively simple melodies and rhythms, songs the "common man" could quite possibly sing along with. Thalmann Variations, a live solo piano recording, is the principal collection of such compositions and, while very different from his wonderful Treatise or the various "Great Learning"'s, it is nonetheless an absolute delight comparing favorably with Rzewski's great work from around the same period such as The People United Will Never Be Defeated!. Cardew's work tends to be somewhat more straightforward but also softer and, just a little bit, tinged with a sadness for what, perhaps deep in his heart, he realized was a bygone era. Like Rzewski, he was fond of working in themes from other, earlier composers of a political bent such as Hanns Eisler and he was not above throwing in the occasional slap at the piano lid, but generally the pieces flow calmly and resolutely, the worker's song ringing out clearly and without very much fuss. Listeners who know Cardew only from his more abstract work will be quite surprised at this recording, while those who are fond of Rzewski or Howard Skempton will find much to enjoy here.
AllMusic Review by Brian Olewnick