Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The emotional sweep of Philip Glass

Philip Glass wrote his 20 Piano Etudes as individual works over the period 1991 to 2012, but he gave the concept of playing them together as a larger work credibility with his involvement in the performance of all 20 during one evening at the 2014 Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival. In his review of that event Steven W Thrasher said that with these works "America’s greatest living composer stakes his claim for immortality." This new Brilliant Classics 2 CD-set of the Etudes by the Dutch pianist Jeroen Van Veen is the first of two releases of this repertoire at the end of 2017; watch for Jenny Lin's version to come along real soon. We're extraordinarily lucky to have such fine pianists playing this music!

I've been reading the Philip Glass memoir Words Without Music, a truly marvellous book, when I came across this passage about his early musical interests:
Berg, the Austrian composer who had been a student of Schoenberg’s, was my favorite. I became very familiar with his music, which had a more romantic feel and much more of an emotional sweep. It was beautiful music, and not as strict as Schoenberg (Webern was even more strict).
I think this is a key issue when it comes to listening to the Etudes.  Van Veen often highlights the emotional sweep of the music, playing with a freedom that belies the absolutely wrong-headed but still popular stereotype of Glass's music as being machine-like and repetitive. He takes some of these works at extraordinarily slow tempos, sometimes to a worrying extent. Again, though, I look to the Glass memoir, and his discussion of SLOW:
With both [conductor Wilhelm] Furtwängler and [director Bob] Wilson, the metronome clicks plunge down well below the comfort level of the human heartbeat. And what these truly great and profound artists reveal to us is a world of immense, immeasurable beauty.
Here's an extreme example of this; Van Veen takes nearly 15 minutes to play the 7th Etude, in A minor. Meanwhile, Maki Namekawa (in her fine 2014 Orange Mountain Music release) zips through it in 6 and a half minutes, while Jenny Lin takes 8-1/2. I can see the theoretical value in the long slow build-up with a strong release later in the piece, and Glass's sad coda as played by Van Veen packs a strong emotional punch here. But I fear he may have stretched things out a bit too much in this case.

I rather prefer Van Veen's version of the next work, no. 8. This is also taken at a stately tempo, but in this case it's to the benefit of the work, with the really rather pretty release after each statement of the stern opening. What an amazing piece, so foreboding and unyielding and then so soft and romantic.

The many permutations of Glass's music results in a really wide range of interpretations, and I think that's part of his genius. Each new concert, each new recording, provides another chance to gain a new appreciation for his genius.

Glass recently had a fascinating conversation with Paul Holdengraber at the New York Public Library, which you can listen to here. I highly recommend Paul's Live at the NYPL and #PhoneCallFromPaul podcasts.

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