Hearing Lonesome Road is like coming across a giant boulder in your path. It is a monumental, dense and overshadowing work -- 51 movements of fiendishly complex piano music, each derived in some way from the same folk music arrangement by early 20th-Century American composer Ruth Crawford. Like some post-everything Diabelli Variations, it stands as a masterpiece of analysis, imagination and transformation, at once recalling Liszt and Thelonius Monk. It combines the intellect of a mathematician with the soul of a jazz musician and the technical prowess of a serialist. It is, in short, an awe-inspiring work.
The piece is divided into three sections, though the second and third sections almost come off as reworkings of the first. Variations I, XVIII and XXXV (the first variations of the three sections, respectively) are in fact closely related, as are other corresponding movements. The emotional range here is striking. Clear changes in texture or tempo invariably demarcate the beginning of a new movement. The pastoral beauty of Variation I soon gives way to the diabolic freneticism and polyrhythms of Variation II. The stately, generally succinct, chorales (e.g. III, VII, XI) differ from the snowballing patterns of the more verbose Variation XVII ("The Hensley Deviations") as well as the more dreamy, lyrical Variations (e.g. XXII and XXXIVa). Each specimen is a unique and fascinating creature that inhabits some strange, intriguing musical space.
In general, Polansky's music is more austere, more conceptual than Lonesome Road. Here he wears the maximalist/romantic cap well. If you're already familiar with his output, this piece might surprise you. If you don't know his work, you should. Start with Lonesome Road -- it's brilliant!