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Philip GLASS (b.1937)
Violin Concerto No.1 (1987) [30’47]
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Serenade After Plato’s Symposium (1954) [33’10]
Renaud Capuçon (violin)
Bruckner Orchester Linz/Dennis Russell Davies
rec. 25-26 February 2010, Brucknerhaus Linz (Bernstein); 17-18 February 2016, Musiktheater Linz (Glass)

Philip Glass’s First Violin Concerto is something of a modern masterpiece in my view (something I didn’t originally believe of this work, not least when I reviewed the Adele Anthony performance many years ago). Written between late 1986 and early 1987, it’s a work that is very typical of this composer’s output during that decade, especially recalling his third opera Akhnaten. Typical of Glass’s music at this time, the underlying tension is steeped in dark-hued, even doom-laden gestures; minor key arpeggios are rattled off in long paragraphs of skeletal-sounding brilliance and the rhythms themselves are propelled by a sense of momentum that is rarely less than hard-driven; sometimes it seems to move along like an old, classic steam engine (and this is also true when Glass is writing at a much broader tempo). Indeed, the theory that Glass’s music is best taken at a fast tempo (as all three previous recordings of this concerto have been) is somewhat turned on the head in this brilliant recording (the first in 18 years) by the French violinist Renaud Capuçon. This soloist and conductor do have a history of performing this work in concert (New York in 2009, for example) and one gets the feeling this is an authentic reading of the concerto, despite the unusually spacious tempo. He is considerably slower in all three movements (almost three minutes alone in the rapturous second movement) than Gidon Kremer, Robert McDuffie and Adele Anthony were for their recordings and the result is the most spellbinding and hypnotic version of this concerto yet done. I found the experience of listening to this performance very cathartic.

The great deception with Glass’s music is that it is somehow easy to play because of the heavily repeated arpeggios yet the violin in this First Concerto is inspired to playing of tremendous lyricism and power, too, especially when taken at Capuçon’s dangerously deliberate speed. One of the tenets of minimalism, so wonderfully articulated in Capuçon’s performance, is that the brilliant, lightening-bolts of cascading arpeggios seem to derive such weight and power from his tempo choices. It’s perhaps not how we are used to hearing this work (or Glass in general), but I found it utterly compelling. At times, the counterpoint of these arpeggios is dramatically set against the soloist in striking relief, rather like a classical frieze. The intense slow movement, taking its sense of mystery and darkness from the composer’s abolition of violins in Akhnaten, has the solo violin soaring over the orchestra in beautifully crafted cantabile lines against a backdrop of bass-laden chords. In part, this entire movement is a conflict between the forces of stasis and dynamism, not the usual struggle of a soloist against an orchestra. But that intense, long-breathed soaring of the solo instrument over the orchestra is what dominates here. In the coda to the final movement, for example, the violin swells above the orchestra against the pulse of almost fugal orchestral chords but the symmetry of how he treats the violin in this coda, as a solo voice, harks back to the composer’s first opera Einstein on the Beach where the role of Einstein was taken by a solo violin. Glass allows the violinist much space in the final movement for virtuosity and kaleidoscopically frenzied tonal colouring, which just add to the work’s vibrant palate.

The basic premise of Glass’s music, especially during this 1980s period, is one of balancing the rhythms with the stasis of the harmony. Capuçon’s gift in this concerto isn’t to rewrite this principle, rather it is to alter the density of the work. It’s hard to escape the notion that in Capuçon’s assured hands this is one of the great late Twentieth Century’s Romantic violin concertos. No violinist to date comes close to Capuçon in making this music sound so rich and deeply layered; his tone is just mesmerising and the passion of his playing absolutely in a class of its own. It’s like peeling back skin to reveal a strikingly decorated skull behind it. The weight of his tone may sometimes stifle the speed at which he is able to tackle some of Glass’s more high-octane rhythmic writing in the outer movements, but this is more than compensated for by the sonorous tapestry he weaves on his instrument (one should also note that Glass’s metronome markings for this concerto – so carefully observed by the conductor, Dennis Russell Davies - are rather closer to what the composer wrote than in other versions of this concerto). Capuçon is close to the m.108 to m.96 in the second movement, for example, and almost nails the m.150 of the first section of the third).

No performance, either, offers such a contrast between this concerto’s distinctive, almost classical, structure. It’s almost conceived as a traditional three-movement violin concerto, but is nothing like the models we are used to hearing. One of the drawbacks of the performances by Kremer, McDuffie and Anthony is that the slow movement has never sounded sufficiently distinct enough from the rest of the concerto; Capuçon corrects that. The highest plaudits, as well, to the Bruckner Orchester Linz under Dennis Russell Davies (the conductor who premiered this concerto in April 1987, where the soloist was Paul Zukofsky). If listeners think that the orchestration might be scaled down a little, that’s because it is in this new revision. No orchestra today, and no conductor, are so immersed in Philip Glass’s music as these – and it shows. The brilliant, rhythmically rich and technically precise playing are a joy to listen to. The recorded sound is very fine, the best yet for this concerto, and the balance between violin and orchestra, whilst immediate, is wonderfully captured by the engineers.

The Glass Concerto has suffered from some pretty dire coupling decisions in past recordings (my guess is that if Capuçon had Glass’s brilliantly virtuosic Second Concerto in his repertoire a single disc might have been a push). As it is, this recording doesn’t escape the coupling problem either. While marginally better than Kremer’s Schnittke Concerto Grosso Nr.5, Capuçon’s performance of Bernstein’s Serenade After Plato’s Symposium, whilst in itself technically brilliant and immaculately played, can’t rescue the work from its reputation as an over-inflated, pretentious piece of bombast. Bernstein’s scoring might be considered even more radical than Glass’s in some ways, but this isn’t a work for violin that is easy to love. The jazziness of Bernstein is well-captured, but compared to the Apollonian wonders of the Glass this ultimately sounds a touch earthbound.

No, the reason to buy this disc is for the definitive performance of the Glass concerto. Capuçon has rewritten the rules for performing Glass’s music and in doing so given us the outstanding recording of this concerto to date.

Marc Bridle


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