Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Philip GLASS
Violin Concerto (1987)
Prelude and Dance from Akhnaten (1984)
Company (1983)

Adele Anthony (violin)
Ulster Orchestra/Takuo Yuasa
[rec.19th to 21st May 1999]
NAXOS 8.554568 [51.46]
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It may well be simplistic to try to reduce Philip Glass' career into a number of distinctive phases. So many strands in his work appear to run in parallel rather than chronologically. It is, however fair to say that the Violin Concerto marks a new direction in his music; at least it did when it was published in 1987.

It was not his first excursion into this medium; he had used the orchestra as a part of his operatic, stage and multimedia works. Most of his instrumental music, written in the minimalist and post minimalist periods, had tended to be composed for the 'Philip Glass Ensemble' which often made use of electronic techniques to produce the desired musical effects.

I first heard the Violin Concerto one summer's evening, back in 1997. It was a warm night and my friend and I were overlooking the Severn estuary at Portishead, near Bristol. It was the Deutsche Grammophon recording (437-091-2) with Gidon Kremer playing the solo part. Somehow the disappearing light over the estuary made the music seem quite special. I was certainly impressed at the time. There was a crepuscular quality to it. Up until that point I had assumed that Glass' music was modern and electronic and probably unapproachable. Certainly I knew he was a minimalist and I had some understanding as to what this meant. But any piece I had listened to previously failed to impress. Here was a score that actually seemed to move me.

Studying the sleeve notes for the Violin Concerto reveals that until this commission Glass had been preoccupied with the writing of operas and stage works. It was his first purely orchestral work since his student days. That is not to say of course that he did not write 'absolute' music during this time; there were the String Quartets of 1966 and 1983 for example.

Glass wrote the concerto for the violinist Paul Zukofsky who was a colleague and personal friend. He assisted the composer at every stage of the compositional process, even going as far as suggesting the form of the last movement. He wanted a slow finale. The original sketches for the work were for five movements. This was developed into the much longer first and second movements. Zukofsky's wish for a slow finale was thwarted; there is a slackening of pace in the coda with references to the material from earlier movements.

So the resulting work was a classic expression of concerto form; three movements, fast-slow-fast with a meditative coda. The work is written entirely for conventional instruments without so much as an amplified saxophone or table top. Glass himself sees the concerto form, not purely as abstract music - but as an event which is "more theatrical and more personal" than other musical forms.

The work itself is intense. Full of interacting rhythmic motifs, repetitive patterns, insistent ostinati, arpeggios and predictable harmonic progressions; this none the less evolves into a piece that is quite passionate. There is a tendency for the music to blur time; in many ways it affects me like the slow movements from Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time-although I am not comparing these two works!

Yet for me this concerto is not compelling; I am not an enthusiast of minimalist or post minimalist music. I understand that it may well be a reaction against the intense serialism of Boulez and his followers. It may be a fusion between different styles of music including rock and roll and baroque figurations. To me it is just too simplistic. It lacks, to my ear at any rate, movement in the sense of conflict and resolution of tensions. In fact it seems to lack a goal; a sense of purpose. Yet in many ways it is an attractive work. It is a composition that is, and will be, popular with listeners who want a 'crossover' piece between 'classic' violin concertos of Beethoven, Vivaldi, Brahms and Berg and the developments in post serialist modern music.

The other two pieces on this CD deserve less comment. The work Company began life as 'incidental' music for Samuel Beckett's play of the same name. It refers to a man lying on his back in a dark room - presumably a symbol of death. There are four very short movements. It is perhaps a novel introduction to 'minimalist music' for those who cannot cope with long stretches of patterns and repetitions. It has also been issued in another guise as String Quartet No. 2.

The Prelude and Dance from Akhnaten derive from Glass' third large-scale stage work. It is based on the story of an Egyptian Pharaoh, his religious views and subsequent assassination. The original libretto has texts in both English and a variety of ancient languages. It is written in typical Glass style with all the usual rhythmic and melodic devices.

Adele Anthony is a superb violinist; she hails from Tasmania and has been playing the fiddle since she was two! She has a whole raft of prizes to her credit - including the Carl Nielsen International Violin Competition 1996 and Jacques Thibaud Competition in Paris 1993. She tackles the Glass concerto with a great deal of sympathy and plays the multiple figurations with a skill normally reserved for Vivaldi. She is no less impressive in the work's more introspective moments.

The Ulster Orchestra under the Japanese conductor Takuo Yuasa acquit themselves admirably in this work which is rapidly becoming a classic. The sleeve notes are totally satisfactory. However, the programme is a measly 52 minutes. Surely Naxos, usually so generous, could have squeezed another tune onto this disc?

How about comparisons with the two other versions available? I must confess that I only know the Kremer CD mentioned above. Both versions seem to me to be excellent. The main recommendation of the Naxos recording with Adele Anthony will be the price. The main recommendation for the Kremer will be the coupling with Schnittke's Concerto Grosso No.5.

Glass' Violin Concerto is not for me. Although my first hearing impressed me- I think it was because watching the sun going down over the Welsh hills was a bit like watching a film. The music was an adjunct to the scene. Of course this is hardly surprising, as so much of the Glass catalogue is theatrical music - both for drama and multi-media. When I remove the scene - that is when I listen to the concerto on a wet evening in my study I feel it lacks something. And that something to me is simply a purpose for its existence.

John France

See also reviews by Colin Clarke and Marc Bridle

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