Classical Music Review: New Releases


Philip Glass - Symphony No. 5 Requiem.  Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra.  Dennis Russell Davies, conductor.   Nonesuch 79618-2 (96'54)

At first glance, or in this case listen, Philip Glass' Symphony No. 5 Requiem, Bardo, Nirmanakaya (1998-99) seems like a piece that continues the grand 19th century musical tradition of big works taking on big subjects. It does, after all, call for huge performing forces -- five vocal soloists -- soprano, mezzo, tenor, bass, bass-baritone --girls chorus, large mixed chorus, in addition to an orchestra of about 80, and it's in 12 movements and lasts 100 uninterrupted minutes. But the 5th's musical and philosophic point of view is thoroughly contemporary because it draws the texts for its book from 5000 years of this planet's sacred "wisdom" traditions, and seeks to find unity by blending them together and setting them all in one language -- English -- so that they speak in a single global-universal voice. This can't have been an easy task for either Glass or the Very Reverend James Parks Morton and Kusumita K. Pedersen who found and combined sources as disparate as the Bible, the Koran, the Mayan Popul Vuh, a Japanese Noh play, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Zuni and African myths, the Bhagavad Gita and the Buddhist saint Shantideva. But the scope of this piece wouldn't matter if it failed to please the ear, engage the mind and touch the heart, and its success in doing all three things puts it on a par with that of the Verdi, Brahms and Fauré requiems which speak to the listener in both intimate and communal terms. Glass' "message" here is that we should strive for the common good of all beings, and this certainly hit home when I heard the Brooklyn Philharmonic perform it at BAM  on the eve of Yom Kippur when Israel and her neighbors were at war. Dennis Russell Davies conducted that performance and he leads this new 2-CD Nonesuch set with the orchestra which gave the work's triumphant premiere at the Salzburg Festival last year, the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, and it's stunning, richly detailed and very moving too.

But that's hardly surprising because Davies has been closely involved with Glass' music for over 20 years, and their mutual experience in the theatre shows. Glass keeps him busy by continually altering the work's shape and scale with solos, duos, trios and quintets -- there's even a quasi-madrigal at one point -- and using the chorus singly or in mixed configurations, supported by the orchestra's rich and complex textures. The composer's vocal settings are also extremely close to the spoken rhythms of American English -- correct, yet heightened according to his expressive needs. And that starts at the very beginning where the girls and womens chorus enter chiming "There was neither non-existence nor existence then..."over swirling figures in muted strings, the mixed chorus comes in at "Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning ..." and, with a sudden pullback in tempo, the male chorus dramatically sings "Desire came upon That One in the beginning..." the vocal and instrumental colors here being being light and fluid as Mozart. Plus the music has tremendous drive.

Glass' writing here and throughout is an object lesson in how to build a piece by controlling its component parts -- metric, harmonic, vocal and instrumental -- so that it flows with inevitable ease. And though both rhythms and textures are sometimes complex they always feel right as in the stunningly dramatic Movement 6: "Evil and Ignorance" and 10: Judgment and Apocalypse." The score also has its sensuous side, particularly in 5: "Love and Joy" where the mezzo(the right on target Denyce Graves) gets two seductive yet elegaic solos -- the first a poem by the Persian Rumi about an expectant lover, the second a Bengali Indian one addressed to a lover, the vocal line descending and ascending in each half. Glass' setting is almost religious in tone because the object of worship in both these cultures was spoken to as if they were a god (Glass does a similar thing in Akhnaten and Nefertiti's love duet in his 1984 opera Akhnaten.) Another sensuous aspect of the 5th is Glass' masterful scoring for every instrumental choir, and some of the most effective and original writing happens in the percussion, a true battery here numbering 17 (4 players), including unusual choices like anvil, marimba, and large and small Tam-Tams (gongs), though what they do always enhances both mood and word.  In movement 6, "Evil and Ignorance", for example, Glass gets especially striking sonorities by having the xylophone doubled by celeste, and combining flute 1 with Eb clarinet -- with glockenspiel, piano doubled by harp, muted tuba and pizzicato strings.  And I don't think I'm going out on a limb when I say that some of these choruses and solos, especially like the knockout setting of Job 3: "Let the day perish wherein I was born"(6), and the concluding prayerful one of Shantideva's "Dedication of Merit" will be picked up by choruses and become classics. And why not? This symphony speaks of our highest human aspirations, and though the tritone which medieval theorists called "the devil in music" haunts the work, it seems to be saying that we're still capable of great things. Davies and his phenomenally alert orchestra put that message across, as do his expressive vocal soloists soprano Ana Maria Martinez, mezzo Denyce Graves, tenor Michael Schade, baritone Eric Owens and bass-baritone Albert Dohmen. And you'd never know that the Hungarian Radio Children's Choir and the Morgan State University Choir were recorded separately in Vienna and New York.

Michael McDonagh
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