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Philip GLASS (b. 1937)
Dracula (arr. Michael Reisman) (2007)
Michael Reisman (piano)
rec. Looking Glass Studios, NY

Times have never been so good for fans of Philip Glass's music. With his record label, Orange Mountain Music, we have a company publishing disc after disc of new works, live recordings, new recordings of old works, and "derivative" works, Glass aficionados are digging deep into their pockets to keep up with the increase in catalogue. The latest derivative is this recording of Glass's Dracula, which he composed as a soundtrack for the classic 1931 film with Bela Lugosi. The music was originally written for string quartet but producer and pianist Michael Reisman has arranged the score for solo piano, in part because his "solo piano transcription of The Hours score proved so successful". Aha, success; is it measured monetarily? If The Hours recording sold well, is that any indication that this one will? In any case, this recording also "includes a previously unrecorded track which was composed by Glass but was left out of the soundtrack recording", so if you're a fan, you just have to snap it up for the bonus track (Dracula: Epilogue), right?
Listening to a work like this, divorced from its context - the accompaniment of a film - you have to judge the music on its own merits. Envisage the disc as a work of music, regardless of the fact that it was intended to accompany images, and don't even compare it to the "original". Since the music was written for string quartet, and is played on a more limited instrument, the piano, any comparison would be futile.
This disc consists of 27 parts, each named after a different section of the film. From 44 seconds to over 4 minutes, most of them are around 2 to 3 minutes long. Within many of the parts, shorter sections become apparent, so it sounds like the entire work comprises perhaps one hundred different melodic elements. Glass's signature style is obvious, with repetitions and Glassian melodic structures: the rising-falling arpeggios of the penultimate section, The End of Dracula. Then there’s counterpoint: Lucy's Bitten section is a good example of this, with different rhythmic structures for the low notes, which sound a regular beat, and the high notes, which sprinkle sounds in a broken rhythm. Michael Riesman is most certainly a scrupulous arranger. Having long worked with Glass, as keyboard player and conductor of his ensemble, Reisman knows this music inside-out. Some parts of the work sound extremely pianistic such as "Excellent, Mr. Renfield" and London Fog, with its broad runs up the keyboard, but a few seem like they were forced to fit this instrument. One example of this is the use of rapid notes in The Storm. However, there is a cohesiveness throughout this work that becomes apparent as one listens. Sometimes, when the music is less "minimal", such as the In the Theatre section, which sounds almost like the accompaniment to a lied by Schubert, the music separates itself from the overall atmosphere and becomes a collection of short pieces tied together by a common theme. However, in general one can almost imagine this being performed as a long work with many related sections.
Now, I said that I wouldn't compare this to the original, and that it is best to consider this work on its own merits. But I would be remiss if I didn't discuss the similarities and differences between the two, if only for the benefit of those readers who own the soundtrack and wonder if they should buy this disc. First, the soundtrack is written for string quartet, which has a wider range of dynamics and textures than solo piano, so the differences are notable. The sound here is more even than in the string quartet version, where the music ranges from very soft to forte. Next, the piano version has a different ending, since the "bonus track" is tacked on at the end. This is a strange place to add additional music, since the end of any work is often its most memorable part. This said, it is a good ending, even if it is different; it's less a bonus track than an extension of the previous track, The End of Dracula. The main difference is in the subtle ability of the string quartet to play more music. The opening of the work begins with grace notes that the string quartet plays clearly, but which the piano elides. The London Fog section has the instruments of the quartet playing on different planes, whereas the piano is much flatter. The piano version sounds almost sedate compared to the string quartet version; it sounds like Gershwin to the quartet's Bartók. The long notes in the high register of Dracula Enters cannot be reproduced on piano, so Reisman favours the stepwise left-hard part, playing just brief notes with the right hand, which in no way match the drawn-out dissonance of the violins in the quartet version. In Carriage Without a Driver, the harsh violin notes that come in at times are obviously replaced by smooth piano figures. And in the Dr. Van Helsing and Dracula section, the fluidity of the quartet is lost when the piano plays a simple melody. All these differences, however, do not mean that the piano version is any less interesting; it is different, very different. Musically, I much prefer the string quartet version, for its textures, for the interplay among the instruments, and for the varied colours the multiple instruments offer.
All in all, this is a very enjoyable listen; perhaps not as attention-grabbing as some of Glass's other works for piano – there aren’t enough of them - such as his Solo Piano album, but full of surprises and intriguing melodies. It is atmospheric and captivating, attractive and lively. This disc is a welcome addition to the catalogue of Glass works, and is bound to please those who like Glass's piano music.
Kirk McElhearn


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