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Philip GLASS (b. 1937)
Symphony No. 2 (1994) [43:14]
Symphony No. 3 (1995) [23:54]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
Recorded: The Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset, July 2003
NAXOS 8.559202 [67:07]

Who could have thought, twenty years ago, that Philip Glass would be regarded as an American symphonist? His early, radical Minimalism did not seem to predestine his involvement in large-scale works ... and these now include several concertos. One might question Minimalism’s ability to work in long symphonic structures. The present recording of Glass’s Second and Third Symphonies may provide some answers. Anyway, there probably are as many symphonies as there are symphonic composers; and a symphony – after all – is what the composer makes of it.

The Second Symphony in three weighty movements is the most ambitious piece here. Playing for nearly three-quarters of an hour, it may seem a bit too long for some tastes. As a symphonic structure, however, it displays a good deal of formal and thematic coherence, which to a certain extent partakes of the essence of a symphony. The first two movements are clearly interrelated; and, as Daniel Felsenfeld rightly remarks in his insert notes, "the second movement picks up where the first left off". True, both movements are rather similar in mood and audibly share thematic material, whereas the third movement brings welcome contrast. The opening flourish gives way to a more angular, virile "Villa-Lobos-meets-Honegger" theme of some energy at odds with the more overtly repetitive patterns of the preceding movements.

The Third Symphony is different from its predecessor. It was written for the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra and is scored for a relatively small body of strings. It is a much more compressed piece with some more interesting material. It is in four movements, of which the second is a Scherzo and the third a fairly impressive Chaconne, whereas the first functions as a prelude and the fourth as a short conclusion briefly looking back at the Scherzo. There are many really fine moments in this often attractive work; and the string writing is beautifully assured and idiomatic. The Third Symphony’s concision and directness of expression make it a real winner. As far as I am concerned, it is the finest work of the two here, and the only one that clearly qualifies as a symphony.

I enjoyed both pieces enormously, although – again – I think that the Third Symphony is a winner and unquestionably superior to its predecessor. Both pieces receive impeccable readings, and are warmly recorded. Now, we know what a minimalist symphony can be. Well worth investigating.

Hubert Culot

see also review by Rob Barnett


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