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Philip GLASS (b. 1937)
Symphony No.5 (1999)
Heather Buck (soprano)
Katherine Pracht (mezzo-soprano)
Vale Rideout (tenor)
Stephen Salters (baritone)
David Kushner (bass)
The Choir of Trinity Wall Street
Trinity Town Youth Chorus
Downtown Voices
NOVUS NY/Julian Walchner
rec. live, 17-20 May 2017, Trinity Church, Wall Street, New York

This symphony is one that, in some ways, sits outside the remainder of Philip Glass’ symphonic output. It is not often performed or recorded, but it is worthy of investigation, even if it is probably not among the finest of the composer’s works. More oratorio than symphony, its twelve movements require very large forces, with five soloists, SATB choir, children’s choir and an orchestra with piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, two trombones, bass trombone, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, celesta, piano and strings. Originally commissioned by the Salzburg Festival, it was intended as a millennial work, and was conducted by that doughty Glass champion, Dennis Russell Davies, in August 1999.

Mahler is famous for saying that a symphony should be like the world: it must contain everything. In this symphony, Glass attempts to do just that. The titles of the movements include Before the Creation, Creation of the Cosmos, Creation of Human Beings,
Joy and Love, Evil and Ignorance, Suffering, Death and Judgement and Apocalypse.

The choral sound is frequently portentous in solemn declamation. This is a work which will divide opinion. The first review in the New York Times by Phillip Griffiths referred to one passage in which the bass sings ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ in the movement ‘Suffering’. He noted: ‘The pathos was unwarranted and thereby sentimental’ and went on to describe the work’s ‘preposterous pretensions’.

I would be less ferocious, but there are distinct issues with both the music and this performance. The music has all the Glass characteristics we would expect – it could come from the pen of no one else – but there is a lack of dramatic contrast between the various movements, despite the variety of subject matter. In consequence the work feels one-paced, one section very similar in mood to another.

The second issue is perhaps more significant. This is a work in which the text matters very much. In the accompanying video, Wachner (his hair a very different length from in the performance) conducts an interesting if occasionally rambling interview with Glass. Glass describes the care he took in constructing the libretto, with several distinguished advisers, saying also that the libretto led the musical invention. Before the filmed concert, Wachner talks to the audience about the need to follow the text giving an invaluable demonstration of how to turn pages without making a sound. The text draws on a wide range of sources: Genesis, the Rig Veda, the Kumilopo, the Zuņi Creation Story, the Nihongi, the Bulu Creation Story, the Bishongo Creation Story all make appearances in the first three movements.

Words matter very much, so much so that Glass renders them all in English. There is none of the Akkadian or Hebrew of Akhnaten or the Sanskrit of Satyagraha. But in this new recording, too much of the text is unclear. One needs the libretto to follow the thread. OMM, with customary parsimony, provide no notes or text – there is simply a link to read them online. For a ha’porth of tar, the otherwise good production values could have given the listener something essential for enjoyment. On the recording, as on the DVD (which is without subtitles), articulation is unclear, despite the commitment evident among performers. Whether the fault lies in the performers, the nature of the music, the church acoustic, or a combination of the three I cannot decide.

Perhaps this is a recording largely for Glass completists. I enjoy his music very much, and I think him a very significant composer, but I left the recording with profound disappointment.

Michael Wilkinson

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