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Philip Glass: Symphonies 2&3, Violin Concerto

img  Tobias Fischer

To Haydn, the symphony was a form. To Mahler, it was a model to explain the world. For Philip Glass, in a way, it has always been both. Even though his orchestral output is still widely neglected, it has handed the composer an ideal format to take some of his most personal thoughts to the big stage. By following his symphonic trajectory, one can, in effect, map the many different periods of his work more accurately than with any other genre. From the early  entries - perfect examples of his trademark repetitive style -  to the rich sound of the 5th, 6th and 7th – which feature contributions by choir and soloist – as well as the otherworldly, nocturnal palpitations of the eighth, these pieces are as diverse in approach and sound on the one hand as they are representative of a composer with a more pronounced penchant for change than is usually acknowledged on the other.

Glass's own Orange Music imprint has long been solely responsible for the dissemination of his symphonies. Slowly but surely, however, other labels are following suite. Inconspicuously and without much ado, Naxos have started their own cycle. Recordings of the „Low“ and „Heroes“ symphonies, inspired by David Bowie's landmark 70s Berlin-albums, are now followed by a high-profile rendition of the second and third. Marin Alsop, who already signed responsible for several entries into the „American Classic“ series seems a natural choice for the baton. Equally well-versed in the romantic repertory and the new music scene of Manhatten („one of my major inspirations“ in the early 80s, she confesses in the liner notes), Alsop is capable of not just intellectually grasping but emotionally understanding that this music tends to aspire to occasionally contradictory states at the same time: Intimate and imposing, tender and towering, sensual and sweeping, spacious and maximally condensed. When she and Glass re-encountered each other in London after many years, it felt like „the continuation of an old friendship, only changed in a simple and profound way“.

The most remarkable thing she now unearths is how strikingly individual these youthful works are despite their close temporal proximity. Seperated by a mere year, they could well be the product of two entirely different minds. Written in 1994, the second symphony is an edgy, unaccommodating composition of wild mood swings and dramatic dynamics. Sporting an extended version of the polytonal style pioneered by the likes of Honegger and Milhaud, in which the simultaneity of two or more potential harmonic centres creates multi-interpretable states of great tactile pressure, the first movement especially constantly verges between the exhilarating and the nerve-wrecking, as crushing dissonances are celebrated with almost naive elation. This tightrope dance continues through the entire 43 minutes of the piece, culminating in a surreal finale: After a plethora of aborted attempts at easing the thematic tension of his material, Glass resolves them in a coda which sounds as though it could have been lifted straight from an episode of „Bonanza“. It is a work which leaves one equally breathless and bewildered – not the weakest possible combination of effects, but perhaps not the most pleasant one, either.

In comparison, the third – strategically placed before its predecessor on the CD – is a concise, concentrated and immediately beguiling study on motion: Strictly held in the traditional four-part symphonic format but scored for a string section of chambermusical proportions, constantly transforming ostinatos are opening up into a world, in which rhythm, sound and melody are as intricately amalgamated as the ring of the lords. In the second movement, nothing much happens except that a more than 20-second long motive is passed through the different voices and timbrally resculpted for more than six minutes. The point of the exercise, however, lies in the ingenuity of the process: One moment, the action takes place in the upper registers only to shift to momentous basses in the next. One instant, the strings are creating a rich, sonorous wall of sound, only to switch to a pointed pizzicato shortly afterwards. From its anthemic opening, the pulse disintegrates into a short pastoral episode, in which the orchestra suddenly sounds deceptively like a Folk-band.

Arguably the highlight of the piece is the extensive third movement, a bittersweet chaconne, in which a solo violin soars to celestial heights. It is a direct reference to the 1987 Violin Concerto, which in many ways already took his ideas about the symphony to their most radical conclusion. Straight from the first dramatic measure, the audience is locked into a whirlwind of tragedy and deliverance, as the lead melody is taken through infernally glowing brass sections, burning strings and downwardly bound chord cycles filled with solace and sorrow. In the slow second section, the melody unfolds from sighing single tones into sweeping lines of consoling warmth and profound sadness, while the tempestuous journey of the finale dies down to a two-minute long whisper which acceptingly fades away into silence in the end.

Dedicated to the memory of his father, the Concerto is exactly the kind of elevation of deeply personal themes to a universal stage that the great symphonics always aspired to. This, too, is what differentiates Glass from many of his peers. While the 20th century is riddled with symphonies that are none, the symphonic thought has continued to proliferate in his work – even in pieces which pay no outward reference to it.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Philip Glass
Homepage: Naxos Records

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