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Philip GLASS (b. 1937)
The Concerto Project Vol. I

Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (2001) [30:47]
Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra (2000) [24:27]
Julian Lloyd-Webber, cello
Evelyn Glennie and Jonathan Haas, timpanists
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz
Recorded at the Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, recording dates undisclosed. DDD

Ever since the 1970s Philip Glass has consistently proved himself to be one of the great composers of our time. Along with the other American minimalists, he led the way back to tonal, accessible music in the symphonic setting. Without him, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley, one wonders exactly what modern symphonic music would be. Their exploration into the music of the Indian subcontinent resulted in the definitive symphonic compositions of the past thirty years. Glass himself has written several operas and film scores in addition to his concertos for various instruments.

However, even given the importance of his writing, his music cannot be considered to be flawless. By his own admission, much of his early music was repetitive to an extreme. While this was intentional, it was far too easy for it to be burdensome to the listener. As Glass has continued to write he learned to make his works more melodic and emotive. The works here, both written since 2001, are illustrative of the music he has created since he consciously reapplied himself to melodic invention to truly flesh out his minimalist style, making it accessible to almost everyone.

The first work is for his Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, originally debuted at the Beijing Music Festival in 2001. The soloist here is Julian Lloyd-Webber, the same man who first played the work when it debuted in Beijing. The work is performed wonderfully, and displays the fully mature Glass as a master composer capable of melding the radical minimalism of his youth with the impassioned music of the neo-Romantics. The work has all the earmarks of a true masterpiece. It feels innovative and free while finding a place rooted among the great works of the past.

The opening theme sounds much like the movement of a murky river. It is dark, churning, powerful and irresistible. This alternates with a much more hopeful and energetic, yet mechanistic, theme that seems to allude to an optimistic view of technology in civilization. The second movement opens with a statement of majesty and statesmanship, with less underlying tension and a more distinguished tempo. It also could be interpreted as a love theme of sorts, with the cello emoting hope, dignity and pensiveness in turns. The third movement recalls the influence of his film scores written by Glass and his contemporaries, perhaps with an ear towards Danny Elfman while voicing the orchestra. While Glass has always definitively used ostinato as a construct, many of the lines he uses hark back to the Elfman film scores. There is a sense of dark humor in this movement, and a feeling of joy being taken from the dark modes and minor tonalities. At several points one hears echoes of Glass as a young man. Yet he never loses sight of his melodic and thematic composition.

The second work, Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra, leans more towards Steve Reich as it is for two timpanists and orchestra. It was commissioned nearly ten years before its debut Written for virtuoso timpanist Jonathan Haas, who has nearly single-handedly raised the status of the timpani to that of a solo instrument, the piece features both he and Evelyn Glennie playing a total of 14 timpani through three movements and a cadenza. The initial movement is heroic and energetic and would easily feel at home in any adventure movie of the past fifty years. The repetition of the orchestra drives the work along in a nearly mechanical groove. However the 14 timpani are given the lead and melody, giving a melodic center matching the astounding pace of chordal planing and tireless tonal shifting. The second movement bows to Holst’s The Planets with its heroic scope and foreboding feel. Eventually though, the standard Philip Glass harmonies and melodic lines allow us to recognize the composer. At the end, Glass’s distinctive and nearly primal use of chimes in conjunction with the timpani drive the work forward. This leads into the cadenza for the two timpanists and interspersed percussion. Much of the material quotes from the earlier movements, but is wholly distinctive by standing alone from the symphonic instruments. Finally the finale is a mixed meter work that alternates between 4/4 and 7/8. ‘World music’ has influenced much of Glass’s mature work and is a presence here, though through a distinctly dramatic synthesis. This is the music of a fantastic world that straddles mythic shaman and adventure hero.

In general the Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra is a terrifically fun piece. It brings together all that Glass has learned in symphonic, operatic, and cinematic work. Truly this must be considered a masterpiece in Glass’s repertoire. It simultaneously seems both wholly new in instrumentation and wholly familiar.

Both works are performed impeccably. One could hardly wish for a better rendering of the music. Glass should be infinitely pleased with these recordings.

The liner notes are historically informative, explaining how the works themselves were conceived and commissioned. Julian Lloyd-Webber contributes a few paragraphs detailing the nature of their collaboration when Glass was writing the Concerto for Cello and Orchestra. Jonathan Haas’s contribution is a bit longer and more technical, as he discusses the metrical construction of the Timpani Fantasy in addition to the history of his commissioning of the work. As the composition was created over the course of a decade, and was preceded by another work entitled Prelude to Endgame for timpani and double bass, the story is quite interesting. Additionally Evelyn Glennie contributes her notes on the Concerto Fantasy in addition to the standard fare that one expects detailing the composer, conductor, and orchestra. The soloists’ additions make the music more intelligible and add enjoyment to their performances.

There is little fault that one could find in these recordings. The soloists are among the greatest players of their generation. Additionally they have the advantage of performing works written expressly for them. As for myself, I have listened to this album at least a dozen times since it was given to me for this review. Each time I am struck by how powerful Glass’s music has become and how innovative he truly is. The current plan is for Glass and Orange Mountain Music to deliver four volumes of concertos. They have set the standard very high for the four albums to come. Anyone who enjoys the work of Gustav Holst, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, John Williams, or especially Philip Glass will enjoy this album.

Patrick Gary

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