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Philip GLASS (b. 1937)
Piano Works
Valentina Lisitsa (piano)
rec. 2014, Reitstadel, Neumarkt.
DECCA 478 8079 [76:00 + 74:57]

As I was about to start writing this review, I came across an article by the American critic Terry Teachout, which discusses Philip Glass’s music by way of his new book, Words Without Music: A Memoir. Teachout pulls no punches in his evaluation of Glass’s music in general, saying:-

“Since 1976, Glass has turned out dozens of instrumental works, including 10 symphonies and six string quartets. I have yet to hear one that struck me as anything other than excruciatingly boring.”

Whether or not Mr. Teachout’s judgment is correct, it is certainly a valid criticism of much of Philip Glass’s music. I wonder what Mr. Teachout would think of Morton Feldman’s works .... However, he also says:-

“It is no secret that virtuoso performers loathe his music, which they regard as monotonous and devoid of interpretative challenges.”

While this may be true of Glass’s orchestral works, it is certainly not the case with his piano compositions. I recently reviewed a new recording of the composer’s piano etudes. A number of performers have recorded Glass’s works for piano, ranging from the composer himself to this new recording by Valentina Litista, by way of Jeroen Van Veen, who included a goodly amount of Glass’s music in his multi-volume Minimal Piano Collection. His works also appear on many recital albums by a variety of pianists.

The rhythmic nature of Glass’s form of minimalism works quite well on the piano, which is, after all, a percussion instrument. While I agree with Mr. Teachout that much of Glass’s symphonic music – and I’d add to that his operas as well – is forgettable, I’ve carried in my head the thrilling rhythms and melodies of his solo piano music since I first acquired his Solo Piano CD in the 1990s (it was released in 1989). For me, other than Einstein on the Beach, Glass’s solo piano works are the most interesting of his compositions. It’s understandable that he didn’t write many works for this solo instrument, as they simply don’t pay the bills. Operas and symphonies, and especially film soundtracks, are far more lucrative than “little” piano pieces.

In this two-disc set, Valentina Lisitsa covers a wide range of works by Philip Glass. She plays all of the works from the Solo Piano release, as well as piano arrangements of a piece from Glassworks (Opening), the 1982 release that Glass said “was intended to introduce my music to a more general audience than had been familiar with it up to then.” It did; it was quite successful. She ends with Closing, from the Mishima film soundtrack. In between these works, she includes a number of excerpts from other soundtracks (The Truman Show and The Hours), arranged by longtime Glass collaborator Michael Reisman. Also included is the thirty-minute How Now, a very early work that Glass wrote and performed (on organ) at his very first concert in 1968. Altogether, these two discs contain two and a half hours of music.

In general, minimalist music of this type is limited in its expressiveness, and, as Terry Teachout said, does not inspire virtuoso musicians. Valentina Lisitsa clearly does not agree with this. Her performances of the works show that one can apply as much expressive technique to this type of music as to, say, Bach or Chopin. With a liberal use of rubato – as much as the genre can bear – and subtle dynamic shifts, Lisitsa succeeds in applying a full palette of colours to these recordings.

This set is also very well recorded. Unlike the recent Piano Etudes album that I mentioned above, where some of the music had heavy dynamic compression applied to make it very loud, these recordings were made the way a piano should be recorded.

The order of the pieces is interesting. Framing the set with Opening from Glassworks and Closing from Mishima, Ms. Lisitsa groups the music thematically. She then plays three works from The Truman Show and The Hours, before switching to How Now, which recalls the somewhat primitive minimalist music that Glass made in his early years. She then alternates works from The Hours and the Solo Piano album, before playing the five Metamorphosis pieces, and then Closing. This order allows the listener to shift in and out of the different periods in Glass’s career, as well as different forms of music: that for film, and that composed for piano.

This is all very approachable for minimalist music, with the exception of the long How Now. At just shy of thirty minutes, this recalls Glass’s Music in 12 Parts, or other “fundamentalist” minimal works of his early years. It is far more repetitive and less lyrical than the other pieces, and revolves around a simple arpeggiated theme that slowly alters by adding notes, and changing chords, while retaining the same rhythmic structure. Depending on your feelings about minimalist music, this will be either the most interesting, or the least interesting work on the album.

If you’ve found yourself enjoying Philip Glass’s movie soundtracks, or want to hear some of his music without an orchestra, you’ll like this release. It’s full of enjoyable pieces, played very creatively by Ms. Lisitsa. You may want to skip the thirty-minute How Now, as it’s quite different in tone from the rest of the music. All that said, this is probably the most accessible collection of music by Philip Glass that has been released in many years.

Kirk McElhearn
Kirk McElhearn writes about more than just music on his blog Kirkville.

Opening - Glassworks [6:08]
Truman Sleeps (short version) - The Truman Show [2:40]
The Poet Acts - The Hours [4:01]
Morning Passages - The Hours [6:09]
How Now [29:52]
Something She Has To Do - The Hours [3:59]
I'm Going To Make A Cake - The Hours [3:20]
Lighting Of The Torch - The Olympian [3:31]
Mad Rush [16:17]
Dead Things - The Hours [4:41]
Tearing Herself Away - The Hours [5:14]
Wichita Vortex Sutra [7:22]
Escape - The Hours [4:34]
Choosing Life - The Hours [4:42]
The Hours - The Hours [7:46]
Metamorphosis I [7:40]
Metamorphosis II [8:25]
Metamorphosis III [5:39]
Metamorphosis IV [8:28]
Metamorphosis V [6:45]
Closing - Mishima [3:38]



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