Classical Music Review: New Releases

Philip Glass - Etudes for Piano, Vol 1.  Etudes for Piano: Vol. 1, Nos. 1-10. Philip Glass, piano. Orange Mountain Music. OMM009.
Philip Glass - Transcriptions for Piano by Paul Barnes.  The Orphee Suite; Trilogy Sonata; Epilogue from Monsters of Grace; transcribed and performed by Paul Barnes, piano. Orange Mountain Music OMM0008.
Philip Glass - Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. Stuttgarter Kammerorchester, Dennis Russell Davies, piano and conductor. Tirol Werburg (Tirol Tourist Board).

The piano -- or should we say the keyboard -- has been the instrument of choice for many composers in Western music history. These have included classic masters like Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven, though we shouldn't forget the French ones, too, like Rameau, and in the 19th and 20th centuries, there have of course been other classic masters who've composed for it, and sometimes had big careers playing their works, like Liszt, Brahms, Debussy, Faure, Rachmaninoff, and Bartok. In our own time Terry Riley has made a mini career of playing his keyboard music in just intonation, while Philip Glass has pursued his own equally unique personal course by playing his equal temperament piano/keyboard works, which though not voluminous, occupy a central place in his output.

That output has been very well documented on CD. Steffen Schleiermacher's covers Glass' early keyboard music -- these were written for Farfisa or grand organs -- while Aleck Karis', on Romeo, is devoted to more recent stuff. Other pianists who've done all-Glass CDs include Arturo Stalteri (Matertiali Sonori), Jay Gottlieb (Piano Vox), and Jeroen Van Veen (Piano Productions). The three new recordings discussed here are devoted entirely to this composer, and one has the benefit of being played by him. Glass is no stranger to his own piano music -- he released Solo Piano on CBS in 1989 -- and that one had his Metamorphosis 1-5 (1988), Mad Rush (1981), and Wichita Vortex Sutra (1988), which ended up in the composer's music theatre work with Allen Ginsberg, Jerome Sirlin, and Ann Carlson, Hydrogen Jukebox (1990). Glass' CD of his first 10 Etudes -- a second book of ten is in process -- gives his up close and personal version of pieces which, he says, he wrote " to expand my piano technique with music that would enhance and challenge my playing. Hence, the name Etudes, or "studies."

Glass' Etudes continue this grand tradition, which extends from Chopin's magisterial double set of twelve each -- 1829-32, 1832-36 -- to Debussy's two twelve-to-a-volume group, from 1915. His, like theirs, focusses on problems, or pianistic difficulties, and they're designed to enlarge a player's capacities as well as his or her imagination. Glass' Etudes, are, after all, as poetic as the aforementioned two. The range of emotion is large too -- from the celebratory first with its fanfare-like parallel chord opening, to the completely internal fifth, which has an almost desolate air. The sound world has a big range, too, and it's dynamically varied, more so, in fact, than is the case with several other Glass keyboard works. The composer says his scores have romantic editing -- meaning that dynamics and phrasing are indicated, but the performer is expected to interpret these, and project them in a personal way. Glass certainly does that here. And though his Etudes confront textural and rhythmic concerns -- there's lots of hemiola, or two against three -- they're never as straightforwardly pedagogical as Debussy's more systematic ones, which are sometimes studies of specific intervals like thirds or sixths. His approach is, in a way, more general, but also just as atmospheric. Number 3, for instance, pits Glass' trademark motoric repetitive figures against carefully weighted densities; its sections are also of unequal and surprising lengths, and elongated or shortened without warning -- a rhythmic/harmonic sequence seems to bloom out of nowhere midway through. Glass' pedaling also gives each study its individual tone color and expressive character -- the third emerges massive, the fourth ruminative, mellow; the fifth, discreet, almost secco, its suspensions floating like passion viewed from afar. The Etudes are also arranged as a contrasting yet developing set -- the first one being moderate, the last fast, and these enclose three other sections -- roughly -- slow, fast; slow, slow; fast, slow; slow, fast. Glass' playing, though far from virtuosic, conveys each piece's  singularity and point. His Baldwin is very responsive, his sound entirely his.

The three-movement Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (2000), though written for this strings only incarnation of the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, rarely sounds big, and certainly never overbearing. Dennis Russell Davies, for whom it was composed, conveys its beauties from the inside, even when the utmost discretion and subtlety is called for, as in his accompanimental parts in the grave central slow movement, which his orchestra plays with sighing, nearly Mozartean ardor. Though seemingly a simple variation set, it's really composed of numerous small sections which glide into each other in a kind of rapturous melancholy. Highly nuanced countermelodies move across the orchestra, and the piano harmonies often mirror or partner the strings, and vice versa. Davies and his Stuttgarters have traveled a lot with this piece; one hopes other will hear of its myriad charms and depths.

Another Glass piece which will travel extensively is his second piano concerto. Funded by the Nebraska Lewis and Clark Bi-Centenial Commission, the Lied Center for the Performing Arts, and the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts, it's set to tour points along the explorers' historic trail, with the world premiere taking place on September 18, 2004, in Lincoln, Nebraska, with pianist Paul Barnes and the Omaha Symphony under Victor Yampolsky. Barnes, who transcribed all the music here, clearly knows his way around Glass, and love always helps. The pianist is especially good at articulation and pace, and says "the tricky thing is maintaining rhythmic vitality."  This is as true of Bach and Mozart as it is of Glass, because all 3 have a penchant for writing long lines which have to be properly colored to make musical and emotional sense. In other words -- you can't be on automatic pilot, and Barnes -- he was born in 1961 -- is clearly not on it here. He also imparts lots of atmosphere and a sense of the psychological to the suite (2000) he's drawn -- with Glass' advice and help -- from the first opera in his Cocteau trilogy, Orphee (1991), which takes the film's scenario as its script. In Barnes' hands, Glass' music mirrors the picture's dream-like flow, and  its cross-rhythms are elegantly projected. The very long "Orphee's Return" is capped by 6 evenly spaced F's which mimic the clock in the story; the c / C triad in the next, and final section, is rendered perfectly, and poignantly too. Barnes' ambitious transcriptions of the "Trilogy" Sonata (1998) draw pivotal moments from Glass' first big 3 -- Einstein On The Beach (1975-76), Satyagraha (1980), and Akhnaten (1984), and functions as both a reduction and distillation of these. "Dance" from the last is a remarkably effective transcription of the fast 16th note wind, string -- but no violins -- and brass with double bass punctuation -- writing, though realistic considerations forced the pianist to omit the percussion line -- triangle, woodblock, tambourine. The closer, from Glass' "digital opera" with Robert Wilson, Monsters Of Grace (1998) is a mournful and affecting processional from the duo's meditation on Rumi poems. Keyboard transcriptions have always helped orchestral music get a wider audience, and Barnes' Glass ones should make these wonderful, highly expressive pieces both accessible, and cherished.

Michael McDonagh
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