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Glass Socanski

Philip Glass (b. 1937)
Piano Solo
Glassworks: Opening
Études for Solo Piano: Nos 1, 5, 6, 11 & 15 (1994-2012)
Metamorphosis: Two (1988)
Wichita Vortex Sutra (1988)
Mad Rush (1979)
Truman Sleeps (1998)
Kristina Socanski (piano)
rec. 2021, Oslo, Norway
Streaming and download only

Kristina Socanski was born in Serbia, and has lived in Norway since 2001. Her first album, a very unusual mix of contemporary works by Leo Ornstein, George Crumb, Missy Mazzoli, Edward Smaldone and Philip Glass was released in 2019 on the Sheva label. Now she has returned to Glass for a complete album, released in digital form only by the Oclassica label, which seems to be a publishing house for artists who have made their own recordings.

Socanski’s selection covers Glass’s output from the late 1970s (Mad Rush) through to his second book of Études (2012), which brings it into competition with a number of other releases, among them, two in my collection: Australian pianist Sally Whitwell (ABC) and most significantly, the brilliant Icelander, Víkingur Ólafsson, whose 2017 Glass album on Deutsche Grammophon, is, for me, one of the great recordings of the last decade (review). There is also an album by Valentina Lisitsa which was well-regarded by our reviewer, but which I haven’t heard (review), and one being released in a few weeks by Fabio Álvarez (a new name to me) on the Spanish IBS label; the brief samples from it that I’ve heard sound very good.

Socanski, Whitwell and Olafsson have Glassworks: Opening in common, so I think it is a good way of evaluating this new release. Socanski and Whitwell take under five minutes, the former twenty seconds faster, while Olafsson takes almost three minutes more. Olafsson’s tempo accounts for this very substantial difference; his approach is poetic, introspective and utterly mesmerising. Socanski is, by contrast, relentless, nervous and driven, similar to that of Whitwell’s. Is one view more valid than the other? Not really, the music can stretch to cope with either, and it may be that it depends on your mood as to which suits best (for me, Olafsson is, and will remain, the pinnacle). Certainly, Olafsson’s approach is an outlier, but on the same album, he also includes an arrangement of Opening where a string quartet joins the piano, and that is more than a minute quicker, so clearly he sees that there are various ways to play this work.

Looking at the previous paragraph, I see that I have mentioned Olafsson more than Socanski, but she has chosen to jump into a pool with a very big fish already there. Of the five Études she has chosen, two (1 & 11) are not included in Olafsson’s more extended selection, so let me consider them first. She demonstrates a gentler touch with Number 1, and a slower tempo than some of the others who have recorded the complete Études. There is some real poetry here, and I count it as a definite success. Number 11 also receives a fine performance, with a mix of drama and delicacy. Surprisingly, given the disparity in Opening, Socanski is actually slower in all three Études in common with Olafsson. While they are perfectly decent performances, she is not able to match the colours he finds in the restrained emotions of Number 5, nor the incredible Romantic drama in Number 6. Mind you, that is akin to saying that a very good cricketer/footballer/baseballer is not as good as Don Bradman/Pele/Babe Ruth (insert your own sporting analogy as required). However, it is in Number 15 where things don’t go so well. Whereas Olafsson finds grandeur among the edginess, Socanski imparts a chugging rhythm, especially in the left hand, that gave me a sort of aural seasickness. The very percussive piano sound – perhaps recorded a little closely – didn’t help.

Normal service is resumed with a very good performance of Metamorphosis Two, known more widely as the music that Glass reused and extended for his magnificent filmscore for The Hours. Again I felt a little uncomfortable about the overly crisp tone of the piano.

Wichita Vortex Sutra was written to accompany an anti-war poem by Allen Ginsberg. Socanski’s development of the tension by ramping up the tempo and the dynamic contrasts as the piece progresses is very effective. Mad Rush was written for the Dalai Lama’s visit to New York in 1979, and is one of the works that heralded a new more lyrical style in Glass’s music, though it certainly retains some of the rapid arpeggios of his earliest works. I most recently listened to it in a remarkable version for multi-tracked and looped cello by Maya Beiser (review). Socanski’s single piano cannot hope to match the electronic wizardry available to Beiser, but she captures the changing moods and swirling rhythms very well. Finally, more film music, this time written specifically for the movie The Truman Show, and adapted for life as an independent work. It is a hauntingly sweet way to finish the album.

Given this album is a digital-only release, I find it wryly amusing that the runtime approximates that of a well-filled CD. It is mainly released for the streaming market, available through the big players (Apple Music, Amazon, Spotify and YouTube) with download options limited to those who subscribe (which I don’t). I had a CD copy for this review, which certainly made life easier. The booklet that came with the CD comprises a short biography of the artist, taken from her website, and brief notes about the music, written by Socanski, which can be found on the Oclassica page for the album.

I am pleased to have heard this, and there were certainly some very good moments, but it will sit alongside several other Glass albums on my virtual shelf, all of which are obscured by the huge shadow cast by Olafsson’s quite extraordinary album.

David Barker

Published: October 24, 2022

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