There was a time when the traditional form of the concerto was anathema to the pared-back language of minimalism. There were two big beasts of the first wave of minimalism and they are still in the public eye: Philip Glass and Steve Reich. They came up with titles as spare as their music: Music in the Shape of a Square; Music for 18 Musicians; Music in Twelve Parts. Both graduated to more poetic titles, but Reich never fell back on the old forms. Glass did, though, and he's now on his ninth symphony and second each of concertos for violin, piano and cello. As he has shoe-horned his hugely distinctive sound into these traditional structures, the original intensity of the style has been diluted and replaced with something altogether more conventional.
Glass's own label, Orange Mountain Music, gives us its second recording of Glass's Cello Concerto No.1. This follows a recording by the work's first interpreter, Julian Lloyd Webber: OMM's Glass Concerto Project series (OMM 0014). There it was coupled with Glass's Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra. In the present case we get only the 31 minutes of the Cello Concerto. There’s no filler – not much music for a full-priced disc. Richard Guérin's sleeve-notes don't mention why this concerto is numbered No.1. It’s mainly concerned with the performance history of the work since its composition in 2001. The Glass website reveals that there’s a second concerto to be premièred in 2012. This will be based on music from Glass's Naqoyqatsi soundtrack.
As for this First Concerto, it begins well with a darkly shifting sequence of chords ground out by the cello: a weightier sound than usual from Glass and one which promises something a little different. Come the first orchestral tutti and we're into fairly generic Glass territory. The material of the second movement is brooding in a way that Glass does very well, but the variations that follow do outstay their welcome. The finale has a certain swagger but comes to an abrupt halt in a way that suggests the composer doesn't really know where his material is heading.
I've not had a chance to hear OMM's first recording of the concerto, so cannot compare Wendy Sutter's performance against Lloyd Webber's. She does make the best case for the solo part with her dark and intense tone and faultless technique, though she's too prominent in the mix and the orchestra's contribution tends to fall away into the background. On paper, though, there's no reason to choose this disc over the earlier OMM one. That release was double the length and I suspect only Glass completists are going to want Sutter's new recording. A shame, because she's clearly an appealing instrumentalist able to enliven a fairly dull piece of music.
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