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