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Philip GLASS (b. 1937)
Glassworlds – Volume 6: America
Piano Concerto No.2 “After Lewis and Clarke” (arr. Paul Barnes for piano) (2002) [28:41]
Three Pieces from Appomattox (2007) [10:25]
Wichita Vortex Sutra (1988) [6:25]
Music in Contrary Motion (1969) [10:11]
A Secret Solo (1978) [13:52]
Wichita Vortex Sutra (version with narration), (1988)
Nicolas Horvath (piano)
Florient Azoulay (narrator)
rec. 2019, La Fabrique des Rêves recording studio, Misy-sur-Yonne, France
GRAND PIANO GP817 [78:28]

This is the sixth CD in the Glass/Grand Piano series. The previous two were reviewed by David Barker (Volume 4 ~ Volume 5) . As with the rest of the they also featured the piano playing of Nicolas Horvath. I have heard some of Philip Glass’s orchestral works and attended the UK premiere of his Symphony No. 11 in Liverpool in October 2017. Like David, I feel that lovers of this music will read the review buy it and many will not read further. As he says, this is a very easy review to write, as those immune to the sound-world of Philip Glass won’t have clicked on the link.

He suggested “yes, go and get this” and not to say any more. After hearing this and bearing in mind, I’ve enjoyed the Glass that I’ve heard before, I really don’t think this is “difficult” music to listen to. Then again, I felt the same about Symphony No. 11 and in that case the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall was only half full. Remarkably some of the audience left before what was a gripping performance by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic under Vasily Petrenko. This music requires a fine pianist and as has been said previously Nicolas Horvath plays it wonderfully well. His notes, which by necessity, I will refer to, are very well written, and feature in the booklet as adapted by Frank K. DeWald. The Model C Steinway (1926) piano sounds very fine with admirable sound and production by Paul Metzger.

Horvath clearly loves this music and states “It is with great pleasure that I am releasing a new Glass album, after much encouragement and requests from fans of the series. My intention with this album is to show, how Philip Glass, like all the great composers from the past, has used his own country's history to create some wonderful musical art. This album also features his most difficult piano piece: the solo piano transcription of the Second Piano Concerto. In addition, there is also the very popular Wichita Vortex Sutra but in two versions – one for piano solo and the second with narrator. I am really thrilled to present this new album to Philip Glass admirers and to my fans, and I hope they will enjoy it as much as I do. Personally, I feel that this album is one of the best in the series.” I have yet to hear the other volumes, but, by the look of it, I would find them equally stimulating.

The Piano Concerto No. 2 was written by Philip Glass in 2004. It is entitled the “Piano Concerto No. 2: After Lewis and Clark”, in tribute to the two early nineteenth century explorers. In their “Corps of Discovery Expedition” they were the first to cross the western portion of the USA. They were assisted by Sacagawea a Lemhi, a Shoshone woman who, at age of 16, met and helped them in achieving their chartered mission objectives. Here, Horvath plays the concerto in a transcription for solo piano by Paul Baines. The Concerto describes the explorers’ journey with parts of the expedition covered in each movement. The notes state that it is by far, Glass’s most challenging piano piece to play. This may well be the case but, I did not find it difficult to listen to, nor did my wife, who has more conservative tastes. There is a repetitive nature about it and certainly it is cinematic in its approach to evoking the expedition. The cadenza in the third movement “The land” owes a debt to that in Prokofiev’s “Second Piano Concerto”, also to “MacArthur Park”, made famous by Richard Harris. It’s certainly a work that I warm to. It would be interesting to hear Paul Barnes’ orchestral version on Orange Mountain Music as reviewed by David Barker.

“Appomattox” is an opera in English based on the surrender that marked the end of the American Civil War. The libretto is by the playwright Christopher Hampton. The premiere took place at the San Francisco Opera in October 2007. It was then revised, after being commissioned and was premiered in this revised version by the Washington National Opera on 14 November 2015. The revision lengthened “Appomattox” from 90 to 160 minutes. As heard here, in its premiere¸ it is, as described, a work of “dark harmonic density’, with an emphasis on harmony. At times, it felt like demented Chopin, with a calmer second movement and ending with undertones, not unlike Beethoven’s “Appassionata”. I can’t see that the opera has been recorded as yet. It would be very interesting to see and/or hear it.

"Wichita Vortex Sutra" is an anti-war poem by Allen Ginsberg. Written in 1966, the poem presents Ginsberg as speaker, focusing on his condemnation of the Vietnam War. Imagery of the war is deployed amid evocation of America's Heartland interspersed with news reports and cultural references. The music was written in 1988 by Philip Glass to accompany Ginsberg's performance of the poem, and was included in Solo Piano and his chamber opera Hydrogen Jukebox. In 2013 Brian Reinhart reviewed a 3 CD set of Glass solo piano, played by Jeroen van Veen on Brilliant. I would concur with the thoughts expressed there: “Wichita Vortex Sutra” is a compelling piece, although it’s Glass at his most Glass-ish and jumps from one idea to another, I found it mesmeric and absorbing. The final track, gives us the narration version with Florient Azoulay as the speaker, very deep and affecting with the music as a backdrop. It’s rather disturbing and certainly not late-night listening. I found it more attractive on second hearing and it’s an apt ending to the disc. The words are not easy to discern during the bulk of the piece. Whether this is deliberate, I don’t know and they aren’t set out in the booklet. They can be found with a bit of Googling. Ginsburg’s poem was the influence for Philip Glass’s Sixth Symphony “Plutonium Ode”. I have recently acquired the symphonies.

“Music in Contrary Motion” was “from his experimental years” and influenced by, celebrated Indian musician, Ravi Shankar. It was composed, just before “Music in Fifths” that appears in “Glassworlds” Volume 4. It’s consistent and pulsing, which I found rather intimidating. Glass described its influences as including “New York City, the powerhouse of a place, that drives his imagination and pulses through his scores”. Glass is often asked, what his music is like. “It sounds like New York to me” is his reply. It’s certainly an answer which makes sense. Personally, I found it the least appealing item here. Horvath presents the premiere of “A Secret Solo” which reminded me of an off-the-wall take on Bach’s famous “Toccata and Fugue” BWV 565, whether subliminally or intentionally. It was known as ‘a long improvisation” performed on his first tour in 1978. Philip Glass, denies this. ‘I can’t improvise … in fact, I never improvised.”. A short electronic version, played by Glass in 1977 can be found on “You Tube”. As someone whose musical taste was transformed by hearing David Bowie’s electronic albums “Low” and “Heroes” from the same year, I find this music accessible. It may not be to everyone’s taste but it is certainly a piece that bears repetition. As throughout, the playing by Horvath is quite astonishing.

This is a remarkable collection of music. I feel that it couldn’t have a stronger advocate and I hope that I’ve covered some of its key qualities. I look forward to exploring more from this remarkable composer and also from Nicolas Horvath.

David R Dunsmore

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