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Philip GLASS (b. 1937)
Symphony No.1 Low (1992) [46:47]
Sinfonieorchester Basel/Dennis Russell Davies
rec. January 2012, Musiksaal, Stadt-Casino

Dennis Russell Davies has a long history with Philip Glass’ Symphony No.1 Low. It was composed in the spring of 1992 as the Low Symphony and first performed by the commissioner, the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra under its conductor, Davies. The recording they made in August 1992 was released in the following year on Point Music 438 150-2. The notes here mention that Davies also recorded the work with the Junge Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie in Munich though I’ve not come across this. Since that date Glass’s symphonic canon has grown significantly, which accounts for the slight re-branding of the work as Symphony No.1. In any case Davies and Orange Mountain Music have embarked on a project to get to grips with Glass’s symphonies, so it was reasonable of them to return to the beginning with a Davies re-make.

This time Davies has been teamed with his regular team, the Basel Symphony Orchestra, of which he has been the director since 2009. There are differences between the Brooklyn and Basel recordings. The Brooklyn Orchestra was recorded sectionally and performed to a click-track, which sounds more like the experience of film music sessions. The Basel recording was a normal session.

The symphony is famously based on David Bowie and Brian Eno’s LP called Low, released in 1977. Glass took themes from three of the instrumental tracks and used them as the basis of his three-movement symphony. His treatment is free, transformative, and in Glass’ own word ‘collaborative’. The novelty of the work lay in a classical composer taking on the work of contemporary rock music.

The expansive lyricism in this latest recording is accompanied by real warmth, and by forward-sounding winds and percussion. Davies takes a slightly more horizontal view of this opening movement, based on Subterraneans, than he has done heretofore. His view of the central Some Are, however, has not really varied. In terms of tempo and articulation it’s of a piece with his recording of two decades ago. Here however it gains through the excellence of execution. The lower brass writing is particularly notable. It’s the finale, however, where the most radical rethinking on the conductor’s part has taken place. Like the opening movement it is more expansive, but this time very much more so. Warszawa is now cast in an almost Brucknerian light and this increased expressive quotient seems to shift the symphony’s centre of gravity more decisively than before to the cumulative breadth of the finale.

This is now certainly the Davies recording of Low to have.
Jonathan Woolf