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Philip GLASS (b.1937)
Symphony No.6, Plutonian Ode (2002)
Lauren Flanigen (soprano)
Allen Ginsberg (text and recitation)
The Bruckner Orchester Linz/Dennis Russell Davies
rec. Brucknerhaus Linz, Austria, September 2002.
ORANGE MOUNTAIN MUSIC OMM0020 [50:47 + 50:47]


Philip Glass’s Symphony No.6 was co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall and Brucknerhaus Linz, to celebrate his 65th birthday. The libretto is Allen Ginsberg’s Plutonian Ode, and the symphony follows the three parts of the poem in its three movements. There are two CDs in this jewel case, which was a bit of a surprise. We’ll come to the second one later.

In the past I’ve enjoyed Glass with the best of them, and my respect for him only increased when Steve Reich - who recently came to the Conservatoire in The Hague - told us all about how he and Philip had survived in New York driving cabs and trying to make a living by starting a removal firm. This new symphony is new Glass on a big scale, but as far as I can make out his musical language has remained fairly consistent since the 1980s. Yes, you can blow it up, but does that make it more interesting? ‘Songs for Liquid Days’ played by the LSO? Maybe not.

The piece opens promisingly, with darkly portentous basses – it really is like the opening of an opera, and that promise is fulfilled by the entrance of the soloist. Part of the problem here is the text. It is fairly easy to follow as poetry, but lines like ‘Radioactive Nemesis were you there at the beginning black Dumb tongueless unsmelling blast of Disillusion?’ are hell to set to music effectively, whatever Telemann might have claimed. Much of the text is made incomprehensible by the brave and talented Lauren Flanigen, but this is not her fault. Her upper range is tested to the full, to the point of some unhealthy distortion on the recording – go to somewhere like 13:57 in the first movement and tell me it isn’t so. I suspect this is a problem with the transfer however, since I was unable to detect it on the second disc – still, no excuse in this automated digital age. With stretches like that you cannot expect a singer to render text with clarity. In the end, the whole piece isn’t much more than a fifty minute recitative – vocally, that is.

Orchestration is another issue. There are the usual trademark fun woodblocks, wind and brass ‘left hand right hand’ (‘LRLRLRLRR’ in Movement II for instance), legato string triplets, arpeggiation and the like – all familiar stuff. There are a few newish harmonies thrown in now and again, but nothing which really stirs my follicles, very few gritty ‘wrong’ notes, no real ‘hook’ which makes me want to come back for more. The last movement has the most extended orchestral solo, which is effective enough: a rolling ostinato punctuated by percussion and brass, but surely not? there’s that distortion again - again not on the second disc, so presumably not a problem with the master tape. The soprano’s solo here is the most beautiful moment in the piece, with a real sense of finale and apotheosis spoilt only by a reedy sounding clarinet buzzing her notes at the same time from stage left, and some very, very banal brass writing close to the end. 

The second CD is something of a joke. It’s the same recording, but with Lauren Flanigen’s voice recessed back into the mix as far as possible, and a recording of Allen Ginsberg reciting ‘Plutonian Ode’ dropped in at appropriate moments – that American ‘Lincoln Portrait’ syndrome again. The result is Ginsberg’s voice over the orchestra, and the soprano echoing or anticipating these words somewhere way off in the distance. In a way it works like subtitles on a foreign film, rendering a formerly obscure sung monologue suddenly comprehensible. It also works a little like those silly commentary tracks on movies, where the writer and director sit and bore the pants off everyone by making inane remarks as each scene runs by with the actors voices rendered sotto – it drives you mad in the end. What it most reminded me of was a comedy sketch on a long lost but not forgotten radio show, ‘On The Hour’, in which a news commentator’s voiceover is consistently repeated by someone else somewhere in the background. There is also great fun to be had with their differences in opinion about pronunciation – I say Uranus, you say Uranus, let’s call the whole thing off (2:36 Movement I). The problem with parachuting Ginsberg’s lines to coincide with the music is that almost all sense of his own rhythm and cadence is lost. I wondered if this recording had been made especially for the CD, as Ginsberg’s reading does seem a little odd, with interrogative inflection at the end of many lines, or maybe that’s just the way he speaks. Personally, I would have had his reading as a complete track at the end of a single CD.

Don’t get me wrong – on its own terms this piece is not without drama or merit. If you like Glass at any cost, by all means give this a try – at least you will receive no unpleasant surprises. For one, I would however have preferred at least some surprises.

Dominy Clements


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