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.