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Philip GLASS (b. 1937)
The Complete Piano Etudes [124:28]
Maki Namekawa (piano)
rec. 1984, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York.

I’ve been an on-again, off-again fan of Philip Glass’s music since the late 1970s, and feel fortunate to have seen Einstein on the Beach in the 1984 revival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Over the years, I have followed his music as it has become more derivative, at times sounding almost like a parody of Philip Glass music.

One of my favourite albums is the 1989 Solo Piano, where Glass plays a number of works that are more melodic than some of his more experimental early music, such as Music in Twelve Parts. Some of the music on this album is also present, in different forms, on the earlier Glassworks, released on CBS in 1982, which is the album that first got him exposure beyond the limited downtown avant-garde of New York.

This album of piano etudes goes back to 1994, when Glass started working on a series of six pieces for his friend Dennis Russell Davies’ fiftieth birthday. He then expanded this to ten pieces, in part to have new music to play at his solo piano concerts. He also wanted to write true etudes that would allow him to “enhance and challenge [his] playing”. After writing ten etudes, he wrote another set, which are “about the language of music itself”.

The results are fascinating; some of the most interesting Philip Glass music in a very long time. While they remain minimalist works, with the repetition typical of this type of music, and, in particular, with many of Glass’s signature arpeggios, some of them (such as Etude 2) are surprisingly lyrical. This work harkens back to Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi, in some of its melodic forms, and has a touching sensitivity. Etude 5 is similar in tone; slow and pensive, with soft dynamics.

Others, such as Etude 6, have a driving tempo, with the sort of chord progression we’ve become familiar with from Glass. Etude 13 sounds a lot like some of the more raucous pieces in Glass’s operas, where different rhythmic structures take turns, joined by fast runs up and down the keyboard. The final Etude 20 is the most complex of the pieces. If I had heard it without knowing who it was by, I wouldn’t have guessed that it’s Philip Glass; his usual repetitive motives are barely present.

In some ways these works sound like Liszt transcriptions of bits of Philip Glass’s operas. While the tone is familiar, the technique, being for solo piano, is very different, and stands on its own. Maki Namekawa’s performances are impeccable; she navigates the difficult passages as smoothly as the lyrical ones, providing a benchmark performance, especially in the bumblebee-esque Etude 6.

My only complaint about this album is that some of the music is compressed a great deal. The volume in general is quite high, and I find myself having to change the volume on my amplifier as I listen to the different tracks. Etudes 6 and 15, for example, have some clipping, and this is certainly not the way this music should be presented on record.

Quibbles about the recording aside, this is a fine set that any Philip Glass fan will want to have. Even those who don’t like Glass’s often pompous operas will appreciate this music.

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

Etude 1 [4:40]
Etude 2 [7:23]
Etude 3 [4:24]
Etude 4 [6:34]
Etude 5 [8:19]
Etude 6 [5:13]
Etude 7 [8:29]
Etude 8 [5:23]
Etude 9 [3:58]
Etude 10 [7:03]
Etude 11 [6:31]
Etude 12 [5:59]
Etude 13 [3:52]
Etude 14 [6:33]
Etude 15 [6:52]
Etude 16 [4:15]
Etude 17 [6:27]
Etude 18 [6:54]
Etude 19 [5:23]
Etude 20 [10:25]