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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

 

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Portraits
Philip GLASS (b. 1937)
A Musical Portrait of Chuck Close (2005) [12:07]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
La vallée des cloches [7:02]
Alborada del gracioso [7:31]
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
L'échange [4:41]
Regard de la Vierge [9:09]
L'Alouette Lulu [9:54]
Erik SATIE (1866-1925)
Sarabande No. 2 [5:24]
Gnossienne No. 4 [2:34]
Gymnopédie No. 1 [3:45]
Bruce Levingston (piano)
rec. July-August 2005, Caspary Hall, Rockefeller University, New York.
ORANGE MOUNTAIN RECORDS OMM0025 [62:15]

 

When Philip Glass’s record label, Orange Mountain Records, releases a CD, one expects it to be a disc of music by Philip Glass. This disc is an exception, containing just one short work by Glass as a teaser (A Musical Portrait of Chuck Close); the rest of the recording being a selection of other twentieth-century piano music. Unfortunately, the “filler” on this disc is more a selection by the pianist Bruce Levingston of works that share “not only representational qualities, but also certain communicative and emotional characteristics,” as Levingston says in the liner notes. Huh?

What it boils down to is that the pianist commissioned a work from Glass, but then, in order to record it, needed more music to put on a disc — he couldn’t release a 12-minute CD with a single work by Glass. The Glass work is, well, Glass-ish. It sounds like a rehash of ideas from his solo piano works and from such music as The Photographer, not like anything truly unique or original. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a big fan of Philip Glass’s music, but this one doesn’t merit the focus it receives on this disc. A longer work, or a collection of such music might be more interesting, but this piece on its own doesn’t stand up overly well.

As for the rest of the disc, well it’s an interesting recital of French piano music. While the pieces may not be “representational” or “communicative” they do stand as a good example of the variety of music that has come out of France in the previous century. The Ravel pieces are indeed close to minimalism in their austerity and simplicity, and show a side of Ravel that many people may not know. La vallée des cloches has a haunting simplicity, and Alborada del gracioso is a more lively work with a Spanish feel. The three Messiaen works are good examples of this composer’s style, ranging from two of his religiously influenced works (L'échange and Regard de la Vierge) and one of his “bird” works; he wrote a series of works using actual bird songs in the music. The relationship to Glass’s music is less obvious here, but one can hear some similarities between Messiaen’s piano music and Glass’s minimalism. Messiaen’s music is darker, though, more chromatic, less structured both melodically and rhythmically, and is far more emotional than Glass’s works. The meditative qualities of parts of Regard de la Vierge, however, do relate to Glass’s minimalism.

Finally, the three Satie works are certainly examples of how early 20th century music may have influenced late 20th century avant-garde composers. Satie could be said to have created a certain form of minimalism. The Sarabande No. 2 is an interesting selection, since it is not a very well known work, but the other two pieces are, even for those unfamiliar with Satie, most likely to sound like something they’ve heard before. This is certainly the case of Gymnopédie No. 1, now a staple of movie scores and TV commercials. It’s a shame that Levingston decided to include this piece, which everyone knows at least subliminally, rather than one of the many other Satie works, even another of the Gymnopédies. 

All in all, this is a disc either for Philip Glass completists, who simply must have a recording of A Musical Portrait of Chuck Close, which is not available anywhere else, or for the simply curious who want an interesting selection of French piano music with a bit of Glass thrown in. The performance and recording are fine, but the disc lacks a real coherence; it truly feels like there is 12 minutes of music with 50 minutes of filler, albeit fine filler. Not to denigrate Levingston, who is certainly a fine pianist, but he played himself into a corner by commissioning this Glass piece, and having to fill out a disc with other music. If he had played other music by Glass, or if he had only played French piano music, that might have been more satisfying.

Kirk McElhearn

Editor’s  Note: Readers may be curious about the title of the Glass piece. Chuck Close is the American artist born in 1940. Glass and Close have been friends for many years. Close’s portrait of Glass dates from the same year as the Glass work portraying Close. RB

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