Classical Music Review: New Releases

Philip Glass - Symphony No. 3 and other works. Symphony No. 31; "Interlude No. 1" from the CIVIL warS1; "Mechanical Ballet" from The Voyage2; "Interlude No. 2" from the CIVIL warS1; The Light2. 1Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra; 2Vienna Radio Symphony; Dennis Russell Davies, conductor.  Nonesuch 79581-2.

Philip Glass - Violin Concerto and other works. Company; Violin Concerto; "Prelude" and "Dance" from Akhnaten.  Adele Anthony, violin; Ulster Orchestra; Takuo Yuasa, conductor.  Naxos 8.559056 (51'46).

Double Glass

Some composers keep writing the same piece over and over.  Lots of people think Philip Glass has been doing that for years.  But if you listen closely, you'll find that this isn't so.  Sure, Glass' trademarks are often present, but what's surprising is how he varies his approach from piece to piece.  The works on two new CDs from Naxos and Nonesuch date from 1983 to 1995, when Glass wrote concert music as well as operas, film scores, string quartets and pieces for his own amplified band.  It's fascinating to see how things from the same period end up sounding completely unique.  The Light, for example, which Dennis Russell Davies conducts on Nonesuch, doesn't sound at all like the Violin Concerto on Naxos, though both are from the same year, 1987.

The Symphony No. 3 (1995), on Nonesuch, surely counts as a major work.  Composed for the legendary Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, it gets much of its character from the white-on-white strings-only scoring.  Yet Glass draws as much color and rhythmic variety as did Bernard Herrmann in Psycho (1960) and Stravinsky in his ballet Apollo (1928).  The first of the symphony's four movements exploits the difference between a short, pulsed figure and a long, flatted melody.  The second scherzolike movement -- there's even a mini trio -- has complex, staggered rhythms and rich textures.  The succeeding slow movement is built on a repeating bass line with intense and steady string partnering episodes on top.  A kind of ecstatic lament, it also has the feeling of a tragedy barely contained.  Glass' vigorous finale recaps some of his basic material.  Davies leads a vibrant yet detailed performance.  He's premiered all of Glass' symphonies -- there are now five, including two based on music by David Bowie and Brian Eno -- so he really knows his way around this music.  The 5th, which got a 25-minute ovation at the Salzburg Festival last summer, will be conducted by Davies at BAM in October, and Nonesuch plans to release its recording then.

The Naxos CD contains the third recording of the Violin Concerto (1987), and it far outclasses the first with soloist Gidon Kremer.  This one, with the Australian violinist Adele Anthony in the spotlight, has a fluidity and delicacy of tone lacking in the Kremer, and the Ulster Orchestra, under its principal guest conductor Takuo Yuasa, provides warm, deeply expressive support.  The Ulster also gives a very dramatic interpretation of Glass' 1983 Company, originally written as a string quartet to be performed in the pauses of Beckett's monologue of the same name.  Kronos recorded that version, the London Chamber Orchestra, the bigger one, though its performance is pretty pallid.

Both new discs also have excerpts from other Glass works.  Davies leads his Stuttgart orchestra in two interludes from Robert Wilson's the CIVIL warS (1984), which is better than his version of the complete score with the American Composers Orchestra on Nonesuch.  And he also conducts the Mechanical Ballet from Act I of Glass' 1992 Columbus opera The Voyage, commissioned by New York's Metropolitan Opera, recorded here by his 30-year-old Vienna Radio Symphony.  This is its first appearance on CD, and Davies experience with the piece shows -- he led the Spring 1996 revival at the Met.

Though Yuasa has recently done a lot of opera, he hasn't, as far as I know, performed Glass' Akhnaten (1984).  The prelude and general dance, though well enough played here, lack the refined timing and drama which Davies produces in his complete recording.  Although Glass' The Light wasn't written for the stage, it benefits from his theatrical sense.  Davies and the Vienna Radio Symphony project it superbly.

Michael McDonagh
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