Bruce Levingston: Dreaming Awake
Sono Luminus

A long-time promoter of Philip Glass's music and associate of the composer, pianist Bruce Levingston shows himself on this double-CD set to be an ideal interpreter of Glass's work. Though his music has been recorded by Levingston before—Portraits, the pianist's 2006 Orange Mountain Music release, features Glass's musical portrait of Chuck Close (written expressly for Levingston) alongside pieces by Ravel, Messiaen, and Satie—Dreaming Awake is an encompassing portrait that includes ten etudes, the title piece, “Wichita Vortex Sutra” (Ethan Hawke reading Allen Ginsberg's text), “Metamorphosis No. 2,” and The Illusionist Suite.

Inaugurating the release with “Etude No. 2” proves to be a masterstroke for the way in which the pianist's sensitive rendering invites a renewed appreciation for Glass's artistry. Anyone misguidedly inclined to think that his music hasn't evolved since an early work like Music in Twelve Parts might well experience a change of heart when presented with the delicacy of Levingston's rendering. In artfully modulating tempo and dynamics throughout the performance, the pianist suggests that the distance separating Glass from composers such as Chopin and Schubert is smaller than generally assumed. It's not the only time that impression arises: there's a grace and elegance to “Life in the Mountains,” the concluding fourth part of The Illusionist Suite, and “Dreaming Awake” that reinforces such connections, and the patience and control with which the pianist executes the plaintive fifth etude makes it all the more affecting.

Other aspects of “Etude No. 2” also identify it as Glass's, and a similar claim could be made about other etudes. Certainly the first and eleventh, distinguished by their declamatory sweep and haunting melodic content, has Glass written all over it, as does the thirteen-minute seventeenth, arguably the most stylistically and emotionally panoramic of the etudes. Derived from Glass's score to the film The Illusionist, the four-part suite possesses many of the familiar earmarks of Glass's music, including his propensity for brooding melodic passages, rippling arpeggios, and propulsive rhythms, as does “Metamorphosis II,” derived from a play based on Kafka's story and featuring a pensive theme Glass also used in his soundtrack for Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line. Throughout the 110-minute collection, Levingston's playing is virtuosic when the material calls for it (“Etude No. 11”), though never gratuitously so.

I'll confess it took me a few listens to warm to Ethan Hawke's presence on “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” simply because the version Ginsberg recorded with Glass on Hydrogen Jukebox is so familiar. There's no doubting the conviction Hawke brings to his open-hearted performance, however, and the sincerity and range of expression the actor brings to the reading, from weary resignation (“I'm an old man now...”) to impassioned affirmation (“I lift my voice aloud...”), is appropriate to the text.

Recorded versions of Glass performing many of these pieces are available, which makes for an interesting comparison study with Levingston's. With all due respect to the composer, my preference tips slightly in the direction of the pianist, simply because his softer touch brings forth even more vividly the inherent musicality of the compositions, a case in point his delicate, understated rendering of “Metamorphosis II.” No performance of a given work can ever be said to be definitive, but Levingston's certainly come close to seeming so, and one imagines Glass would endorse these versions without reservation.

December 2016