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Philip GLASS (b. 1937)
Complete Études for Solo Piano (1991-2012)
Sally Whitwell (piano)
rec. 2017, Studio 277, Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Ultimo Centre, Sydney, Australia. ABC 4816952 [2 CDs: 147:56]
On the back of the Philip Glass’ eightieth birthday last year a rash of recordings was released, and concerts were arranged to celebrate this major milestone in his life. It seems that it is still going on with this disc only the latest to be released since the anniversary.
The first book of Études for Solo Piano began life as a collection of pieces that Philip Glass composed mainly for himself to perform at concerts, with many being written in 1993. He even recorded them for his own record label, Orange Mountain Music, in 2003 (OMM-0009). These pieces were closely guarded by Glass and were not allowed to be published at first, with the composer choosing who could perform and record them. When in 2012 Glass composed book two, his outlook had changed; no longer were many of his larger works the sole property of the Philip Glass Ensemble, with a growing number of performances and recordings being by other ensembles. The same was true of his piano music, with more and more requests to perform the Études. This resulted in the publication of the Complete Études for Solo Piano in 2014, which was launched at a concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music when all twenty Études were performed by a group of pianists, hand chosen by the composer, including Sally Whitwell. Since publication, at least six other recordings have been made of the complete Études, as well as many recordings that have included selections from the two books.
The first book opens with four heavy chords before the music rushes headlong into what is typical Glass; indeed, the first time I listened to the set I started looking for other works those pieces resembled; they are not hard to discover, with echoes of La Belle et la Bęte and Koyaanisqatsi to name just two, but I soon came to enjoy the pieces for themselves. The second set continues were the first left off, and although there is a distinct tightening in the compositional style, it is still clearly by the same hand. The second set is perhaps less virtuosic than the first, with Glass saying of them that they are more “about the language of music itself”; they are however, equally enjoyable, and here again the composer builds pieces upon music he had previously composed, the best example being the very last of the Études, where Glass uses music he composed for the film Visitors, developing it into a piece of great power and beauty.
Listening to other performances soon makes it clear that nothing is set in stone when it comes to tempo. Take Glass’ own recording of Book 1: this is nearly 30 minutes quicker compared with Sally Whitwell, who is, in turn, on the whole quicker than Jeroen van Veen on Brilliant (95563). Whilst I have a soft spot for Maki Namekawa’s slightly quicker performance, the premiere recording of all twenty Études (OMM0098), I find Whitwell’s performance to be excellent, with well-measured tempos, whereas van Veen can sound a little plodding at times. You never feel that with Whitwell, even in the pieces where she is slower. Hers is a very nuanced performance that affords me great enjoyment, and rivals Namekawa’s wonderful recording. The recorded sound is also better than the Brilliant set, having an added clarity and crispness, and while Whitwell’s notes are informative, they are a little sparse on the Études themselves. A must for all fans of Philip Glass’s music.
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