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Philip GLASS (b.1937)
Symphony No. 10 (2012) [31:45]
Concert Overture (2012) [7:53]
Bruckner Orchestra Linz/Dennis Russell Davies
rec. 2013, Orchestersaal, Musiktheater Volksgarten, Linz, Austria
ORANGE MOUNTAIN MUSIC OMM0101 [39:40]

Brian Reinhart’s review of this release has led to a brief flurry of controversy on the MWI message board, but the prospect of reviewing something with apparently no redeeming features whatsoever is a challenge which has its own perverse appeal, so, here goes.

I will never understand why record producers insist on putting overtures at the end of a disc rather as an opener, and I would recommend playing it first on this CD to put you more in a ‘Philip Glass mood’ – it may make you a little more sympathetic towards the symphony. The Concert Overture was written to commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812 – a homage to Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” and a “celebration of a celebration”. This is a piece that chugs along amiably rather than blowing our socks off, and there are disappointingly no cannons or other explosions. What we do get are some variants on typical Glass progressions and percussion effects, but the piece generates a respectable sonority and has a decent flow of energy in its build-up to a strangely inconclusive final gesture.

The overture is more of a symphonic movement than anything else here, and the reason for this is that the Tenth Symphony was never conceived as a symphony. The original version of the piece was as something called “Los Paisajes del Rio” written for the 2008 Expo Zaragoza Spain and performed by the Philip Glass Ensemble during the closing fireworks show. As this was an occasional piece and unlikely to be performed again, Glass orchestrated it for symphony orchestra in 2011. Once you have this in mind as a “one-off’ piece originally “drowned out by fireworks and the cacophony of 200,00 [?] drunk revelers” it starts to make a little more sense. I’m sure it worked fine at the time. Alas, that’s where it should have stayed, as a one-off.

Occasional works can stand alone, but while Richard Guerin’s booklet notes state precedent for this in Glass’s oeuvre I can also mention one or two wider reasons for not working these kinds of pieces up into a symphony. Steve Reich isn’t Philip Glass, but Reich long ago worked out that amplifying a crack team playing fewer instruments rather than attempting to perform his work with big orchestras saved them from becoming unwieldy and overblown. I’ve not heard “Los Paisajes del Rio” but am prepared to lay a bet it worked as well if not better than the symphonic version we have here, and if Glass was that keen on preserving it for posterity he could easily and more sensibly have recorded it as written. Occasional music can also be fantastically entertaining, such as Michael Nyman’s “La Traversée de Paris”, but then again this is something that remains very close to the authenticity of its origins. Nyman is another promiscuous recycler, but much of this music ended up in the film Prospero’s Books rather than emerging as a symphony.

One of the most telling observations in Brian Reinhart’s review is that with other works by Glass, “for all their repetition, they are actually going places”. The frustration with this Tenth Symphony aside from its actual content, is that each movement ‘exists’ rather than truly propelling us on a shaped trajectory though time. It’s a hackneyed observation, but the best symphonies take us on a journey at the end of which we have been transformed in one way or another. As there is no real musical narrative in any of the movements then nor can there be any transformative effect from beginning to end. The first movement is strange agglomeration of harmonic/thematic non-sequiturs, the second opens with potential for some atmospheric growth but turns into little more than a static dirge. The third movement is a rather noisy ‘camel train in the desert’ type of thing, its ostinati failing to generate excitement and its melodic material distinctly un-memorable. It must have been horribly tedious to play. While we are being critical there are some intriguingly ‘ham’ aspects to the orchestration to distract us, including stereotypical castanets and a ‘Terminator’ anvil in the last movement. The wind writing 47 seconds into the fourth movement somehow manages to make the Bruckner Orchestra Linz momentarily sound like a school band. It’s all more than a bit depressing.

The biggest problem with this work is that it shouldn’t be called a symphony. I’m all for the breaking of conventions, and a symphony can take many forms. It should however have, as Wikipedia puts it, “a degree of sophistication and seriousness of purpose.” If Glass had loosened up his material a bit and called this his ‘Euclidean Dance Suite’ or ‘Concerto for Percussionists and Orchestra’ then there would be no real controversy and even the potential for some fun. As it is we have something which isn’t emotionally involving or even very entertaining, and in which the musical ideas are not strong enough to stand the weight of the name imposed upon them. In pure terms I wouldn’t say that this is a work with absolutely no redeeming features. The second movement creates a nice atmosphere and could be made to ‘go places’ with a little harmonic development. The fourth movement builds effectively over its six or so minutes, but this is all the kind of thing that would work more effectively as the background to some kind of film. The whole thing exudes a lack of imagination and effort, and if it hadn’t been written by Philip Glass I doubt it would have passed the score-reading stage. None of it is “extraordinary in scope, richness, originality and urgency of expression”, and this is what leaves us gasping for less.

One of the things we forget as we wade through truckloads of new Bruckner cycles is that there is an ever-increasing volume of ‘symphonic’ tosh being churned out these days; the remarkable popularity of which can seem incomprehensible to other musically literate and classic-savvy people. I’m open minded about all this and am prepared to argue my corner when the accusations of elitist pretentiousness come in – each unto their own and vivre la différence. It’s the popular music that pays for the more esoteric, and being popular doesn’t have to mean lacking in quality. It does however annoy me that people might come away from this with the idea that it’s the best we can do these days when it comes to symphonic writing. I’m not gong to blow smoke up Glass’s proverbial just because I have respect for him as an artist and have admired works of his in the past. We all need to exercise quality control, and this has been something of a weakness from the Glass/OMM stable over the years.

If you tell me something is ‘a thing’ then I reserve the right to remain sceptical. Tell me that that ‘thing’ should be placed in the same genre as examples by Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Nielsen or Arnold then I reserve the right to consider this an error of judgement. This Tenth Symphony is at worst an example of lazy recycling and at best has been wildly mis-named.

Dominy Clements
 
Previous review: Brian Reinhart

 

 




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