Violin Concerto (1987)
Prelude and Dance from Akhnaten (1984)
Adele Anthony (violin)
Ulster Orchestra/Takuo Yuasa
[rec.19th to 21st May 1999]
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
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
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
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
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.
See also reviews by Colin Clarke
and Marc Bridle