About this Recording
8.559766 - GLASS, P.: String Quartet No. 5 / Dracula (excerpts) / String Sextet (Carducci String Quartet, O'Duill, Rosefield)

Philip Glass (b. 1937)
String Quartet No. 5 • Suite from Dracula • String Sextet


Although he still remains most widely known for his series of innovative works for the stage (notably those in collaboration with the producer Robert Wilson), and prior to that a sequence of ground-breaking scores for his own ensemble of electric keyboards, wind instruments and voices, Philip Glass has latterly made significant contributions to both the orchestral and the chamber repertoires. The former category comprises ten (to date) symphonies and numerous concertos, while the latter features five string quartets. Preceding them were a further three quartets, but these were student works that the composer no longer acknowledges. As with many others before him, Glass has spoken openly of the weight of history hanging over this particular genre—a quality reflected in his own quartets. Interesting, moreover, is the degree to which they gradually divest themselves of facets most often associated with minimalism; their outward repetition taking in an increasing variety of melody as well as accompaniment. These pieces thus chart Glass’ journey into the mainstream of post-modern musical thinking.

The Fifth String Quartet [the first four quartets are also recorded by the Carducci Quartet and can be heard on Naxos 8.559636] was commissioned for the Kronos Quartet by David A. and Evelyne T. Lennette and first given by that ensemble in New York on 15 February 1992. It is the most substantial of Glass’ quartets and—despite its five movements—the most indebted to the quartet tradition in the formal follow-through across and between movements, as well as in its defined expressive contrasts that gradually merge into a cohesive and unified whole.

The first movement opens in a mood of pensiveness, with the elegiac exchanges between the four players essentially a preamble to the second movement. This latter unfolds more equably over a steady rhythm on the lower strings, complemented by brief passages of more animated activity, until the music arrives at a questioning pause. The third movement is launched with an energetic gesture in rhythmic unison, which motivates the impulsive discourse that follows as the music builds keen momentum with more than a hint of folk inflection before a sudden wind-down. The fourth movement begins as a threnody before its tempo increases markedly and the composer’s familiar arpeggio motion can be heard among various lively exchanges. An eventual subsiding of energy leads directly into the fifth movement, its sweeping curves of expression soon making way for a pensive throwback to the work’s opening, before the activity recommences and a sequence of tensile chordal writing that encapsulates the overall harmonic trajectory takes the music through to a thoughtful while quietly expectant ending.

The above quartet remains Glass’ last essay in this genre to date, though the composer has returned to the medium on several subsequent occasions. One instance is his 1998 score to Dracula, specifically the 1931 film directed by Tod Browning and with Bela Lugosi in the title role. Speaking of his creative approach, Glass has stated that “I felt the score needed to evoke the feeling of the world of the nineteenth century. For that reason I decided a string quartet would be most evocative and effective. I wanted to stay away from obvious effects associated with horror films. With Kronos we were able to add depth to the emotional layers of the film”. The outcome is a wide-ranging score that underpins the salient aspects of the visual drama, and which is no less evident in the suite as derived from the complete score.

Titles opens proceedings in tumultuous fashion with its hectic exchanges between the four instruments, before subsiding into Journey to the Inn whose purposeful onward progress is summarily cut short heading into Excellent Mr Renfield, which unfolds at a more leisurely pace, albeit with brief outbursts that disrupt the texture. The Storm heads off at a furious pace, though much of the writing is restrained in dynamics prior to the explosive close, while In the Theatre unfolds at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, with soulful chordal writing over a gently throbbing accompaniment that migrates between upper and lower pairs of instruments. Woman in White is marginally more animated, its series of pensive melodic phrases and calm accompaniment patterns changing in formation as the underlying motion remains unaltered, while Dr Van Helsing and Dracula strikes a more anxious tone with its pulsating chordal sequences that gradually increase in intricacy on the way to a curt close. Finally, The End of Dracula seems to pick up where its predecessor left off, arpeggiated writing brusquely alternating with trenchant chordal passages as the music accumulates to a maelstrom of activity which sees the suite through to its sombre and fatalistic conclusion: as emotionally apposite in its present context as it is in that of Browning’s classic film itself.

The final work on this disc is the String Sextet. In fact this is an arrangement (by Michael Riesman) of the Third Symphony for strings that Glass had written in 1995, and which was given its premiere in New York on 12 December 2009 by the Glass Chamber Players. As might be expected given this work’s provenance, the four movements outline a symphonic trajectory that is appreciably different from that of the composer’s other chamber works for strings—though the music retains an intimacy and inwardness synonymous with the genre.

The first movement begins with undulating activity in the lower instruments that gradually draws in the whole sextet, and with the accompaniment transferring to pizzicato strings for the latter stages. The second movement seems very much the scherzo of the work, its initial energy powering on with unflagging impetus and with notable rhythmic dexterity prior to an extended passage involving pizzicato strings that finally peters out in uncertainty. The third movement centres on a repeating gesture for the violin and violas in unison, heard against a similarly repeating phrase from cellos and an undulating counter-line on violin, though this formation is subject to continual modification as well as a notable degree of intensification as it wends its elegiac course toward an emotionally heightened close. The fourth movement then stands in greatest contrast, its propulsive initial gestures in rhythmic unison bringing an impetus which holds good throughout this relatively brief finale as it heads forth towards the sanguine closing bars—so ending the most substantial of all Glass’ chamber compositions.

Richard Whitehouse

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