Glass: Piano Works (CD Review)

Vikingur Olafsson, piano; Siggi String Quartet (Una Sveinbjarnardóttir, violin; Helga Þóra Björgvinsdóttir, violin; Þórunn Ósk Marínósdóttir, viola; Sigurður Bjarki Gunnarsson, cello) [tracks 7 & 13]. Deutsche Grammophon 479 6918.

By Karl W. Nehring

"To listen is an effort. Just to hear is no merit; a duck hears also." --Igor Stravinsky

I have long been somewhat ambivalent about the music of Philip Glass. My first exposure to his music was when a series of concerts I had purchased tickets for when I was a grad student included a special presentation of the film Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance with the soundtrack being performed live in the theater by Glass and his band. The movie and the music were both interesting, although certainly repetitious. Somewhere during that same time frame I became acquainted with his album The Photographer (1984), which an audiophile friend lent me along with the recommendation that I audition it for both the sound and the music. I found it fascinating, purchased a copy for myself, but when I followed up on the Glass kick by acquiring a copy of Glassworks (1982), I was not all that impressed – the synthesizer sound in some of the cuts was grating, and Glass seemed to be a one-trick pony. I later tried some of his symphonies but could barely get though them, never wanting to hear them again. Although I did get a kick out of his first Violin Concerto. I was not much of a Glass fan.

It was when I heard on the radio some of his piano music that I got curious again about Philip Glass. I wound up purchasing a CD of Glass playing some of his own compositions and enjoyed it, although not with any special enthusiasm. In the wake of the 9/11 tragedy, NPR often played piano music by Glass – "Opening," from Glassworks (music that I had previously dismissed as "one-trick") – which provided me with a startlingly soothing sonic salve during such a horrific time. I found myself gaining a new respect for Glass, at least for his keyboard compositions. Still, they seemed to me maybe not so much "one-trick," but they nevertheless seemed to lack the depth and range of emotion that I wished they could provide. They sounded somewhat "mechanical," for lack of a better word.

Which brings me (finally) to the CD that is the subject of this review. Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafsson brings a background of having played Glass's music in company with the composer himself before sitting down at the piano and recording his own version. As he explains in the liner notes, "As a classical pianist, I often find myself working more with dead composers (Bach, Mozart, Schubert, and the like) than with living ones. This has its downsides. Novel ideas in interpretation tend to be met with nothing but a stern silence from beyond the grave. Living composers seem infinitely more flexible and open to exploring new paths in their music. Few composers are as alive as Philip Glass, and being able to meet and work with one of the art form's pioneering forces is a rare and precious opportunity for which I am grateful. Playing Philip Glass's music for and with the composer himself reminds me that music, too, is alive – never a dead monument but a living, ever-changing environment, a forest of rich sensations, colours and smells and sounds… Listening to him play the Etudes feels a bit like getting a sneak peek into the composer's private workshop: while the music already exists on the printed page, one gets the sense that it is almost being improvised, that a rebirth is taking place as he plays… That sense of rebirth is, in my opinion, central to understanding the Etudes. On the surface, they seem to be filled with repetitions, but the more one plays and thinks about them, the more their narratives seem to travel along in a spiral. We never hear the same music twice as long as time continues to move forward, even if the chord progressions look the same on the page."

Philip Glass
When I first auditioned this release, I found myself enjoying the music, but in a rather casual manner. It was soothing to hear, rolling along in its pleasantly unstressful way, a great CD to just pop into the player and listen to while doing something else.

Quack, quack, quack…

However, when I really sat down to listen carefully, I was surprised to hear how Olafsson was able to make the music come alive. What had seemed somewhat mechanical and repetitious at first listen suddenly began to reveal itself as fluid and ever changing as Olafsson the pianist brought his personal touch at the keyboard to the scores that Glass the composer had penned to paper.

The program laid out by Olafsson and producer Christan Badzura is nearly as symmetrical as a shot from a Wes Anderson film. There are 13 tracks, with the opening and closing tracks being to versions of "openings" from Glassworks, Track 1 for solo piano and Track 13 being a rework by Badzura for piano plus string quartet. The central track, Track 7, is also a reworking by Badzura for piano and quartet, this time of Etude No. 2.  Sandwiched between the opening and central tracks are five Etudes, Nos. 9, 2, 6, 5, and 14. In similar fashion, appearing  between the central and closing tracks are five more Etudes, Nos. 13, 15, 3, 18, and 20.

Olafsson's interpretation of "Openings" is wistful, tender, not at all "mechanical" in feeling. Indeed, the music sounds songlike, presented with genuine emotion. You hear subtle changes in volume throughout and a slowing of tempo at the end. Lovely!

As he plays the following five Etudes, it becomes apparent that there are aesthetic reasons that they are not presented in numerical order. After the tender mood established by "Openings," Etude No. 9 brings more energy, faster and louder, with some bell-like chords that make an affirmative statement. No. 2 brings us back to a more reflective and subtle mood, opening on the bass end of the keyboard before moving up to the treble. At times there is an "echo" effect within the melody, which Olafsson handles subtly yet persuasively. The cut ends with volume and tempo increasing as Olafsson returns to the lower end of the keyboard. No. 6 brings back the energy, with staccato accents and some back-and-forth between a bigger and smaller sound, cycling up and down until the sound just dies at the end. No. 5 begins softly and slowly, Olafsson playing with a reflective, spare touch. For the last of the Etudes in this first bunch, No 14, the sound again becomes richer as Olafsson playfully varies the pulse, varies his accents, and produces a playful sound subtly suggestive of the old-time piano playing that would accompany a silent film end. Whew! What a romp!

At the midpoint of the program, the instrumentation varies as Etude No. 2 is played by Olafsson and the Siggi String Quartet. The end result is simply beautiful – music lyrical and hopeful.

The second batch of Etudes opens with No. 13, which brings us back to a more energetic, almost nervous sound, with Olafsson's fingers prancing up and down the keyboard restlessly, whimsically, until the piece just slows at the end, seemingly out of gas. As you might expect by now, the next Etude, No. 15, returns to a more reflective mood, but Olafsson brings out through his subtle shifts in accents some nervous energy lying below the surface, gradually increasing until the mood shifts again as the piece resolves its inner conflicts and ends with some more peaceful lower notes. No. 3 predictably ramps up the energy as Olafsson's playing imbues the work with a sense of power and motion reminiscent of a fast drive during rush hour on a busy freeway. No. 18 highlights Olafsson's sensitive touch at the keyboard as he uses subtle manipulations of tempo and volume that draw us deeply into the music. He sounds completely engaged, making it easy for the listener to be engaged in music that could otherwise come across as cold and mechanical had it been presented more prosaically. Olafsson clearly loves this music, has studied it carefully, and practiced it diligently.  The next track is the pinnacle of the program, Etude No. 20.

Oh. My. Goodness…

Even early on, when I was listening to this CD more casually, there were times when as soon as this track started playing, it immediately drew my attention. As background music, the first eleven tracks could seem to just go on their merry way as "typical Philip Glass music," pleasant but repetitious, or maybe repetitious but pleasant. Suddenly this was not "typical Philip Glass music." This was something different – something breathtakingly beautiful, arriving from some higher sphere, trailing clouds of glory.

In the liner notes, Olafsson shares a similar sentiment. "Like many others, I was taken by surprise when I first heard the last Etude, No. 20, that autumnal intermezzo which seems to come from another world entirely than its nineteen siblings, whose DNAs have more obvious traits in common. I asked Mr. Glass about it, and he seemed as surprised by the work as I was. His answer has stayed with me: 'I really don't know, I just found myself out in space in that one.' And the music does indeed seem to defy gravity, floating from one tonality onto another, gorgeous melodies appearing out of nowhere only to quickly disappear into the void."

As this track unfolds, it is as though Olafsson and the listener gradually come to the realization that from the beginning of this CD, they have been on a journey that they now feel was more than a simple journey, but actually a quest – a quest for beauty not describable in words, but so eloquently presented by means of invisible vibrations in the air transposed into chemical and electrical signals in the brain that stimulate wonder while providing peace as well. A rewarding quest has been fulfilled.

The program then concludes with Badzura's arrangement of "Opening" for piano and quartet. The addition of the strings brings an enhanced sense of motion and drama, ending with a calm and peaceful fade that brings the program to its close.

The sound quality is well balanced and clear, the liner notes are a pleasure (and easy to read, hooray!), and the music is top-notch. If you are a fan of piano music, this is a CD that you should hear.

KWN

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa