PHILIP GLASS (b. 1937)
Company. Violin Concerto. Prelude and Dance from Akhnaten.
Adele Anthony (violin); Ulster
Naxos 8.554568 [DDD]
This is a very useful CD. A super-budget coupling of Glass' popular Violin
Concerto with two works of the earlier part of the 1980s admirably fills
a gap in the catalogue. Indeed, despite being placed second in the running
order, the Concerto gets star billing on the CD cover. It was premiered on
April 5th, 1987 in New York, the soloist on that occasion being Paul Zukofsky.
The young Australian violinist on the present recording, Adele Anthony, comes
up against both Gidon Kremer and Robert McDuffie on rival labels (DG and
Telarc respectively), and emerges none the worse for it. Her tone is sweet
and she has a winning way with the many lyrical passages. Only occasionally
in the typically minimalist arpeggiations does her tuning suffer, but her
sense of rhythm is robust and the whole is characterised by a most captivating
sense of determination. Aided and abetted superbly by the Ulster Orchestra
under the Japanese conductor Takuo Yuasa, the sense of controlled inevitability
in the powerful momentum of the first movement is gripping. Listen to (and
enjoy) the intimate delicacy of the second movement, in which Anthony's phrasing
is most touching. Throughout Glass explores the possibilities of what and
orchestra can do for his strain of minimalism.
The programming of this CD is commendable. Whilst McDuffie offers the John
Adams Violin Concerto and Kremer gives Schnittke's Fifth Concerto Grosso,
Naxos stays with Glass. 'Company' is a set of movements from Glass' score
to Fred Neumann's adaptation of Beckett's prose text mounted in New York
in 1983, which makes it contemporary with 'Akhnaten'. In this string orchestra
version (played by solo instruments it becomes the Second String Quartet),
it sounds slightly cumbersome. The final items on the disc, the two excerpts
from 'Akhnaten', are made of sterner stuff. At over twelve minutes long the
Prelude has the space to exert its darkly hypnotic power, and the Dance from
Act 2 Scene 3 is positively sensuous. I hope these two snippets are sufficient
to send people scurrying for a complete set of the opera.
Tim Handley's engineering is exemplary throughout.
but Marc Bridle is not quite so easily charmed
Philip Glass' Violin Concerto (1987) is a somewhat charmless work. It's
conventional three movement structure may have much in common with most other
concertos, but for Glass the soloist is not so much a protagonist, more a
bystander. The violinist may have dramatic moments, but the principle motivation
behind this work is for Glass to explore his own sound within the orchestra.
In this respect, it is a self-indulgent concerto. It is as if Glass felt
compelled to compose purely orchestral music, but added a solo violin only
to give the work a standing personality of its own.
The concerto has all of Glass' latter-day hallmarks. There is a chugging
restlessness to the both the opening movement and the last, the endless arpeggios
for the solo violin, and the repeated patterns a la minimalism. The second
movement is juicy and lyrical, the last faster, taken at a whacking crotchet
150 - with the coda taken at the same tempo (crotchet 104) as the opening
of the work. Adele Anthony makes much of the solo writing, although her tone
can be excessively bright. If there are dark undercurrents in this work she
largely misses them. Whereas Kremer's first entry (in his DG recording at
0'21) is darkly mysterious, Anthony (also at 0'21) is more muddied and less
focussed. Her second movement suffers from an almost woolly claustrophobia,
whereas Kremer's breadth of tone and acoustical spaciousness gives this movement
a ghostly appearance. The irony of these performances is that they actually
make more of Glass' work than he might have intended. Kremer is more red-blooded,
Anthony perhaps more charming than the work deserves. If the Vienna Philharmonic
for Kremer shimmer more brightly than the Ulster Orchestra for Anthony this
is perhaps not surprising.
Akhnaten, Glass' thrilling opera about the sun-worshipping Egyptian
Pharaoh, is a much underrated work. Takuo Yuasa perhaps takes this opening
Prelude too slowly, but one cannot fault his ear for Glass' orchestral
wonderland. Woodwind are beautifully phrased, and there is an undeniably
evocative pulse to Yuasa's conducting. The tension is perhaps not as great
as it should be, although there is the pervasive darkness (helped by the
omission of violins) that makes this work so monolithic. Company,
an orchestration of Glass' Second String Quartet, is slight by comparison,
but well played.
Since the main reason for acquiring this disc will be for the concerto I
think, that at bargain price, the offering is worthwhile. It is not the best
version, but certainly recommendable, although everyone might be better off
investing that little bit more for Kremer's recording of John Adams' Violin
Concerto - a much superior work.