About this Recording
8.554568 - GLASS, P.: Violin Concerto / Company / Prelude from Akhnaten

Philip Glass (b

Philip Glass (b. 1937)

Violin Concerto. Prelude and Dance from Akhnaten



Born in Chicago in 1937 to Jewish immigrant parents, the American composer Philip Glass began his musical studies on the flute and violin, going on to study with Steve Reich at the Juilliard School in New York, and later with Darius Milhaud in Aspen and Nadia Boulanger in Paris. By the 1980s Glass had already made a considerable reputation for himself in the field of composition now generally referred to as minimalism In his output from the mid-1960s onwards, he had examined the possibilities inherent in subjecting very small amounts of musical material - often just a few notes - to extensive repetition, in a style having some similarities to those of his compatriots and almost exact contemporaries, who include Terry Riley and Steve Reich For a decade Glass's concern lay, like Reich's (the two composers were friends for some of this time), in the audibility of the musical processes – in particular the rhythmic processes - generated by this approach From 1968, all his compositions were written for the amplified group consisting mainly of flutes, saxophones, electric keyboards and, later, voices that became the Philip Glass Ensemble. In the mid-1970s, however, his interest in the structural rigours of his music lessened, and he began to reinvest melody and harmony - elements which had been sidelined in the obsession with minimalist processes - with a new purchase on their potential Tunes and the sorts of chord progressions which accompanied them in more familiar kinds of Western music could now be explored afresh in the surviving context of minimalist repetition.


The result was a rather different kind of music from compositions such as Music in Similar Motion of 1969, or even Glass's first stage work, Einstein on the Beach, conceived in collaboration with the director and designer Robert Wilson and premiered in 1976. New investigations of melody and, especially, harmonic progression were already important strategies enabling Glass to sustain musical and dramatic interest over the several unbroken hours of Einstein's duration. But it was only when these had been allied with the vocal and orchestral forces of the traditional Western opera house - forces much more conventional than those of the composer's own ensemble - that he was able to fulfil his new lyric and dramatic aspirations with the resources which come as part of the natural territory of twentieth-century opera. This new approach -partly a matter of text as well as texture (the voices of the early Philip Glass Ensemble did not sing text, as such, only individual syllables or numbers) - could also be tested on more rock-orientated endeavours. What Glass's music in the last quarter of a century has lost in note-to-note rigour, it has gained in range of expression.


While the differences between Glass's early minimalist and later (post-?) minimalist scores are considerable - making possible not only a greater range but also, as a consequence of this, the composer's considerable success since the early 1980s continuities between the old Glass and the new abound. One of these is his involvement with writing music for the 'legitimate', rather than the musical, theatre The composer's first wife, JoAnne Akalaitis, had been much involved with a theatre group first formed during the couple's years in Paris in 1964--6, which back in New York eventually became known as Mabou Mines This group became particularly associated not only with the plays but also with other writings of Samuel Beckett, of which the author allowed Mabou Mines to make staged versions.


Company originated as instrumental music for Fred Neumann's adaptation of Beckett's prose text of the same name, mounted in New York in January 1983; it was thus composed around the same time as Akhnaten. Like this opera, Glass's Company is steeped in doom-laden arpeggios in minor keys cross-cut with driving rhythms: features shared, in fact, by all three compositions on this disc. Beckett's Company - concerned, as so often with this author, with memory, but unusually autobiographical - involves a solitary figure lying on his back in the dark; the music's dark ruminations thus seem entirely appropriate. As a concert piece, the four short movements taken from this score can be performed either by a string quartet (it is also known as Glass's Second String Quartet) or, as here, by a string orchestra.


Akhnaten, first performed in Stuttgart on 24th March 1984, is the composer's third large-scale stage work; it was conceived as the final instalment of a trilogy with Einstein and Satyagraha (1980), the latter, based on Mahatma Gandhi' s early years in South Africa, being Glass's first opera for the forces of the conventional Western opera house. Akhnaten's subject is the Egyptian pharaoh of the fourteenth century BC who is held to be the first monotheist and whose radicalism led, after seventeen turbulent years, to his overthrow and presumed murder. The opera's three acts show the rise and fall of Akhnaten in a series of tableaux; the libretto is sung in a mixture of ancient languages and English.


On the present recording, the opening Prelude - with its magnificently sustained arc of tension and not-quite release - is followed by the dance from Act Two,

Scene 3 which, in more obviously rhythmic fashion, celebrates the inauguration of the city of Akhetaten created by the new pharaoh; in an actual production, musicians appear on stage along with the rest of the cast. In both these extracts, some unsettling metrical ambiguities enhance the drama. And throughout the opera, the predominatingly dark mood is enhanced by the absence of violins from the orchestra (an omission actually brought about by practical restrictions on the Stuttgart premiere performances).


The Violin Concerto is the first of many orchestral works that Glass has composed on commission since the late 1980s, following the acclaim accorded to Satyagraha and Akhnaten The choice of the concerto form seemed a natural one for a composer then currently obsessed with opera he found it 'more theatrical and more personal' than music for orchestra alone The work was premiered by Paul Zukofsky and the American Composers Orchestra under Dennis Russell Davies in New York on 5th April 1987. Both these musicians had worked with Glass before. Zukofsky played the part of Albert Einstein (in Einstein on the Beach the character is represented by a solo violinist, not a singer) in that stage work's first performances; Davies had conducted the premiere of Akhnaten.


The concerto's familiar three-movement, broadly fast-slow-fast, layout was in fact accidental. Zukofsky, who collaborated closely with the composer during the work's gestation, had requested a slow, high finale. Glass's original plan to have five short movements changed in the course of composing the piece, and he ended up with two movements followed by, a third one which concludes with a slow coda making references to the material of both previous movements, thus also complying with his soloist's wishes.


The composer's familiar repeated arpeggiations, together with other types of figuration likewise idiomatic meat and drink to the fiddle, sometimes predominate over the melodic impulse. Yet this choice of solo instrument has also inspired lyrical material, intercut with and sometimes counterpointing the arpeggiations in quite dramatic fashion in the first movement. The central movement’s set of variations on a descending bass line, too, allows the solo part to soar and the variations themselves to rise and fall in a simple but moving progression, while the coda to the finale brings another quite dramatic movement, and the work as a whole, to a rapt conclusion. The affecting minor modes and chromatically shifting harmonies of the Violin Concerto are entirely typical of Glass’s style at the time it was composed.


Keith Potter



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