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Philip GLASS (b.1937)
Symphony No.8 (2005) [38:56]
Bruckner Orchester Linz/ Dennis Russell Davies
rec. Mechanics’ Hall, Worcester, MA, USA (no date)


This record label has been specifically created to serve the cause of Philip Glass. The idea, to quote the company’s website, is ‘to archive all the master recordings that Philip Glass has made and … bring to the public the wealth of beautiful and unusual recordings and some very inspired performances’. This is a nice idea rather undermined in this case by charging full price for less than 39 minutes of music. This probably won’t bother die-hard Glass fans, but it’s hardly likely to help bring the music to a wider general public.

With that gripe out of the way, it’s good to report some interesting music in and amongst here. I have to confess to not catching up with the 8th Symphony’s predecessors, apart from No.2, but Glass’s own brief liner note tells us that 5, 6 and 7 all used text settings of one sort or another. By contrast, No.8 marks a return to purely instrumental symphonic writing. Indeed, Glass was asked by the conductor here, long term collaborator Dennis Russell Davies, to ‘think of the orchestra as a collection of virtuoso instruments as you would find in a concerto formation’. That idea of a ‘concerto for orchestra’, which has inspired so many composers, also seems to bring the best out in Glass, certainly for the most part.

If you are already imagining rather soporific wallpaper music where soothing sounds drift over you with little harmonic change, then the opening will be a shock. It really starts with a bang, a full-on, dramatic call-to-arms of which Haydn or Beethoven would have been proud. The pulsating cross-rhythms and overlapping melodic lines that are so typical of the minimalists are there, of course, but there’s enough invention and real orchestral ingenuity to keep the listener hooked. The traces of chromatic experimentation that have crept into his recent scores are present and there is a toe-tapping catchiness to the whole that is quite engaging.

I have to agree with other critics that things go rather downhill from here. The second movement is a passacaglia with variations, but don’t expect the sort of memorable statements of Brahms, Britten or Shostakovich. It’s rather dreary and aimless, as is the even slower third movement, a sort of concluding funeral march. There are some nice individual touches in both movements but they just don’t keep the interest and certainly don’t match the opening movement for inspiration. In fact I could have happily enjoyed this as a one-movement symphony (or symphonic poem?) without feeling short-changed – after all, he would have been following plenty of illustrious examples.

Performances and recording certainly serve the piece well and I suppose Glass fans will need no persuading but the rest should try before you buy.

Tony Haywood


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