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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.
Rec. 20-21 July 2003, The Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset. DDD
NAXOS 8.559202 [67.07]

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This issue reminds me of the fairy story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. I know that there are fans of Glass’s music around the world, but personally I see it as a bit of a con. The same motif, repeated endlessly, with slight changes being fed in as and when the "composer" decides. There is little or no development, no thematic development and recapitulation in evidence. How are we poor listeners expected to consider these works as symphonies?

I would like to think that the notes will illuminate my understanding of the music, particularly in an issue like this. When I come across statements like the following, how can we be expected to treat these symphonies as works worthy of serious attention: "The first movement is something of a slow burn, building in intensity, dank and a little screechier than many of Glass’s "prettier" works, but ending in a calculated whimper, the second movement picks up where the first left off ….." Sheer pretentious rubbish – which goes some way to describe the music.

Having got that off my chest, I am happy to say that if you want a disc of these two symphonies, you will be more than happy with this disc. The playing of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under their Chief Conductor is superb, and Naxos has captured their efforts in excellent stereo sound. Their collaborative efforts go from strength to strength, and Alsop must be a considerable asset to Naxos in developing their dominance of the UK CD market. Nearly every one of their issues is well received and it seems that she can turn her hand to almost any repertoire without any true weaknesses. Allied to this, she leads a number of first class ensembles, and seems to get good, if not superlative performances out of them all.

Naxos has included this disc in their American Music Series which now has a tremendous range of repertoire available for us to enjoy (or otherwise). When it started, I welcomed it and I have been rarely disappointed in the repertoire which has been released. Even this disc, I have appreciated in spite of my comments above for at least it gives us the opportunity to hear these works at a price which is almost throwaway. This particular release must be considered by Naxos as a premium issue as it comes in a very smart slip-cover over the jewel case. This slipcase uses the colour picture from the traditional Naxos sleeve enlarged to form a rather smart totally blue cover.

The earlier symphony (No. 2) is the longer of the two and is placed second on the disc. It is in three movements and was written for the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was premiered by the staunch Glass advocate Dennis Russell Davies conducting the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra. The work is polytonal – i.e. displaying more than one key at once, which makes the work ambiguous.

The Third Symphony is on a smaller scale than its companion, but is just as pretentiously described, this time by the composer himself – "The opening movement, a quiet, moderately paced piece, functions as a prelude to movements two and three, which are the main body of the symphony. The second movement mode of fast moving compound meters explores the textures from unison to multi-harmonic writing for the whole ensemble …" Need I say more, except that I recommend this to fans of Philip Glass – others, steer well clear.

John Phillips


see also rather more positive reviews by Hubert Culot and Rob Barnett


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