Philip Glass: Etudes for Piano, Vol. 1, no. 1-10
Orange Mountain Music

Philip Glass: The Orphée Suite for Piano
Orange Mountain Music

Merely mentioning the name Philip Glass engenders equally passionate reactions of appreciation or vitriol. Supporters applaud him for rescuing classical music from the dead end of serialism; detractors condemn him for perpetuating a numbingly repetitive and simplistic style. While an early groundbreaking work like Einstein On The Beach (1975-6) understandably polarized audiences with its audacious challenges to operatic conventions, Glass continues to this day to upset listeners despite evolutionary changes which have rendered his musical style more accessible. Last year's soundtrack to The Hours found some admiring its sensitive distillation of the film's poignant moods, while others decried its intrusiveness. Naturally, Glass's inordinate level of success accounts to some degree for the negativity directed his way; equally fine composers like Ingram Marshall, for example, may be esteemed but hardly share a comparable media profile. Certainly another factor that accounts for the dislike must be the incredible volume of music Glass produces. When new releases seemingly appear with such regularity, it's tempting to dismiss them outright as superfluous. The recent founding of the Orange Mountain Music label, then, will be cause for celebration or derision, depending on your point of view. Specifically established to promote Glass's recordings, the label will hardly quell the growing tide of releases. After all, there's an astonishing wealth of works to draw upon: operas, film scores, theatre pieces, ensemble, orchestral, and solo performances. For completists and fanatics, such a label is manna from heaven; for those less impassioned, the key issue is whether a given release adds anything significant to the Glass oeuvre.

As the keyboard is his primary instrument, it's hardly surprising that Glass has fashioned piano works, just as Beethoven, Mozart, Liszt, Debussy, Rachmaninoff, and Bartok did so before him. There are, in fact, many existent recordings of Glass's piano works. Steffen Schleiermacher, Aleck Karis, Arturo Stalteri, Jay Gottlieb, and Jeroen Van Veen have produced recordings, while the composer himself released Solo Piano in 1989. Etudes is, however, rather different from that release. First of all, the two emerge out of different contexts. Solo Piano's works have their origins in stage music (Metamorphosis, 1988), collaboration (Wichita Vortex Sutra, 1988, with poet Allen Ginsberg, eventually part of Hydrogen Jukebox), and public ceremony (Mad Rush, 1981, composed for the Dalai Lama's first public New York address in 1981). Etudes for Piano, Vol. 1, no. 1-10, on the other hand, is comparatively 'pure' music. Glass concedes a practical genesis for the pieces as he wished to have new pieces for solo piano concerts, but also admits that the pieces were created to expand his technique, hence the name Etudes, or more simply 'studies.' (True to prolific form, he states that a second set of ten is near completion.) Aside from any programmatic details, these latest compositions are more emotionally expressive and intimate than those on Solo Piano, and adhere less rigidly to a principle of structural repetition. Dynamic contrasts of tempo and mood abound, bestowing a sense of singularity upon each piece. The majestic “Etude no. 6” and celebratory “Etude no. 1” contrast, for example, with the ruminative second and fourth pieces, whereas the aggressive third hews more closely to Glass's trademark style. While many of the pieces are densely arranged, “Etude no. 5” is almost skeletal by comparison, its lack of adornment accentuating its melancholy aura. Overall, the recording is atmospheric and resonant, and presents a more romantic side of Glass. The affectingly wistful “Etude no. 8,” for example, recalls The Hours' elegiac mood.

While a satisfying complement to the Etudes recording, the Orphée release differs from it in many ways. Paul Barnes is the performer here, and, judging by this recording, a sympathetic and elegant interpreter of the composer's music. More pointedly, the pieces are transcriptions from five of Glass's operas, and therefore offer an opportunity to hear how the resultant ensemble and orchestral works might have sounded upon their initial composition at the piano. The pieces span decades, as Barnes's 1998 Trilogy Sonata draws upon Glass's ‘portrait' operas Einstein On The Beach, Satyagraha (1980), and Akhnaten (1984). The Orphée Suite for Piano is a 2000 transcription by Barnes based on Orphée (1991), Glass's first opera in his Cocteau trilogy. Finally, the closing “Epilogue” from Glass's 'digital opera' collaboration with Robert Wilson, Monsters Of Grace, stems from 1998.

The Orphée Suite is the key composition here, not only for its relative unfamiliarity but for the emotionalism and poignancy of the score that Barnes exploits so effectively. The brief “Orphée's Bedroom” has an endearingly pensive quality, while “Orphée and the Princess” must be some of the gentlest Glass on record. Programmatic details occasionally emerge, as when the spectral “Orphée's Return” ends with six Fs representing the clock striking within the story. There are dramatic contrasts of mood too. For instance, the rollicking, ragtime-inflected opening of “The Café” is startlingly different from the composer's customary style.

A keyboard transcription acts as a good litmus test for the strength of composition, given that no amount of skilled orchestral arranging can camouflage weaknesses. Certainly the Orphée Suite survives that test by displaying unadorned the compositional range and richness of the original work. Barnes also performs the Trilogy Sonata with aplomb, although the prototypical Glass aficionado, long familiar with the original operas, may be less impressed when the piece is heard alongside the Orphée Suite. The “Knee Play No. 4” predictably exemplifies Glass's early repetitive style, while the stately “Act III Conclusion” captures Satygraha's buoyant, lyrical qualities. “Dance from Act II Scene III” stands as a remarkably deft transcription, given the prominent presence of percussion in the Akhnaten orchestral treatment. The processional “Epilogue” from Monsters of Grace ends the recording on a conspicuously sombre note.

Even Glass's most vocal critics must concede his staying power. For decades, Glass has not only survived but flourished, in spite of fickle and ever-changing assessments of his worth. For a composer so indelibly associated with a signature style, Glass has managed to maintain interest by spinning endless variations in countless contexts and by retaining an invaluable melodic inventiveness. With respect, then, to the issue of whether these releases add significantly to the Glass catalog, the answer, perhaps surprisingly given the huge number of extant Glass recordings, is that yes, they do. The Etudes provides a disarming portrait of the composer working through intimate studies of varying moods, while the opera transcriptions offer a revealing overview of stylistic evolution spanning twenty-five years. Most satisfyingly, the Etudes and the Orphée Suite argue strongly for the composer's resourcefulness in maintaining a distinctive level of compositional quality in his latest works.

October 2003