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Philip GLASS (b. 1937)
King Lear, Theatre Score
Natalie Cummins (violin)
Martin Agee (violin)
Christopher Cardona (viola)
Stephanie Cummins (cello)
Ruth Wilson (vocals)
rec. 2nd Story Sound, New York

Reviewing the Glenda Jackson King Lear in the New York Times (April 4, 2019), Ben Brantley wrote of Jackson’s performance in the title role:

It should surprise no one that Ms. Jackson is delivering a powerful and deeply perceptive performance as the most royally demented of Shakespeare’s monarchs. But much of what surrounds her in this glittery, haphazard production seems to be working overtime to divert attention from that performance. That includes a perfectly lovely string quartet — playing original music by Philip Glass, no less — that under other circumstances I would have enjoyed listening to. Here, though, this intermittent concert seems to be competing with, rather than underscoring, Shakespeare’s bleakest tragedy.

This was a production in which major parts were taken by women. Glenda Jackson – from all the reviews I have seen – was superb, and Ruth Wilson received fine comments for her dual performances as Cordelia and the Fool. I have not seen the production, but critics were quite united that it was a messy experience.

Not that one would know any of this from the new CD from OMM. Apart from a brief and rather gushing ten lines or so from the composer on his invitation to provide a quartet and the excellence of the production and everyone concerned, no notes are provided. This is a shame, for as Brantley notes, this is ‘a perfectly lovely’ quartet, which has substance beyond the ephemeral. Glass’ quartets contains some of his finest music, I think, and it is interesting how often he has turned to this form for theatrical purposes. Yet it has a curious independence from the play – except in the vocal tracks by Ruth Wilson, I found myself almost forgetting about Lear. This suggests that the thirty movements, many around a minute or so, might valuably be reorganised into a separate suite or quartet. There is invention enough to allow for more detailed development. The longest movement, ‘Here is my Pledge’, at 13 minutes, stands out as a developed piece in its own right, beginning with a plangent cello before the other instruments creep in. There is deep feeling here, and it gives the lie to those who dismiss Glass as simply repetitive – it is an invitation to put aside prejudices and to listen to the quality of this extended meditation on its own terms.

The playing of the four players (apparently not a regular, named quartet) is fine throughout, attentive to the subtleties of the score. Ruth Wilson sings/recites on three tracks, adopting an all-purpose Cockney probably spoken nowhere else than on the stage. Not that the accent matters very much, as none of us speaks English as Shakespeare’s contemporaries did, not least as the plays predate the Great Vowel Shift of the eighteenth century. For repeated listening, some might wish the vocals had been omitted, but it is a tiny proportion of the whole, and unlikely to affect enjoyment.

Michael Wilkinson

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