Philip Glass: An Evening of Chamber Music

Philip Glass (piano), Wendy Sutter (cello), Mick Rossi (percussion/piano)

Barbican, 30 May 2009 3 stars

GlassPhilip Glass' audience is, as is well known, considerable. Going on the evidence of this concert, it is also somewhat non-critical.

The trajectory of his career is well known, from the early, rigorous studies in additive structures, through the Janus-point of Einstein on the Beach, on into the later scores, as wide and various in context as any composer working today.

Thus minimalism, from an ascetic, exploratory invention of a new way of making sound, to a shirtless dilution of the zeitgeist. Over the last two to three decades composers working under the large (largest?) musical umbrella of minimalism have utilised repetition and harmony in such a way as to invoke tonality, as opposed to the extramural functioning of consonance in the early works. As minimalism has taken on aspects of the canon, so it has been allowed into that canon.

These issues are vital for an understanding of Philip Glass' music, and its reception. All the music heard tonight was written by Glass in the last two decades, and as such speaks to a diversity that is nevertheless often saturated in a consolatory and occasionally deeply moving harmonic atmosphere. There is a moment when much of this music simply stops being minimalism, as it has been generally understood, and becomes something more akin to late romanticism, both in terms of the harmonic ground plan and the gestural superfluity of the music.

So it is in Glass' Songs and Poems for Cello, an extended, non-programmatic (as far as I could tell) solo suite rich in contrapuntal dexterity, rhythmic alacrity, and through-composed movement. Repetition is used, but it often comes in the way it does in early post-romantic works, as a straining against ordinal form, even as an adumbration of minimalist liberation. The long and deeply serious suite avoids much of the clichés of Glass; no swirling arpeggios, no disingenuous transpositions of register as a formal device, little additive planning. In fact the harmonic and emotional capacities of the work were such, particularly given Wendy Sutter's committed, involving, and deeply expressive performance, that one could have been forgiven for doubting its provenance. Minimalism was a distant echo across the suite’s many transformations. But such are the lessons we learn as we go; the composer's continued vitality is doubted in vain. Sutter's performance was the artistic highpoint of a very uneven concert; its fertile and flaunting emotionalism wrought through great technical dedication, sounding quite unexpected in this context, as the audience's uncertain (and confused?) claps between movements confirmed.

That audience lapped up most of every arpeggiation thrown their way otherwise. Glass himself performed solo and in duos and trios with Sutter and the ambidextrous percussionist/pianist Mick Rossi. Though clearly the source of much satisfaction to some in the audience, Glass' piano playing was deeply lamentable. His opening performance of numbers II and IV from his Metamorphosis cycle (and not the Etude I and II as he quite endearingly suggested) were, to put it bluntly, ham-fisted. He got the clashing rhythms accurately enough, but his playing lacked any sense of finesse in the touch, or in the phrasing, not to mention the frequent missed or wrongly-struck notes and the cloudy articulation he brought to the inner voicing. The mechanical workings of the music, which works at cliché with an undisguised level of brazenness, were not helped by Glass' humdrum, almost perfunctory readings. His solo encore of the opening to Glassworks was a touch more fluid, but still suffered the same problems.

SutterI fully acknowledge that seeing the composer engaged with his or her own music in the most intimate of situations, the moment-to-moment re-composition through performance, is a privilege that is innately interesting. But when the results are as disappointing as they were here, particularly when such a fine pianist as Rossi is available (who excelled in the fun four-hander arrangement of music from Orphee, and in the cadenza flurry of cello and piano from Secret Agent), the motivations need to be questioned. Perhaps for some of the audience such as the one Glass commands, and in saying this I do not want to condescend but merely to observe, the composer and the performer are one and the same creature, and to separate the two would somehow degrade the impact of the music. If the concert was purely about the communication of the musical richness of these works (and despite the frequent lapses on the one hand into cliché in the piano writing, and on the other into parody, particularly in the bizarre French café-fado music hybrid of the trio music written to accompany a performance of Genet's The Screens, a lot of this music retains a power over the emotions which surely accounts for its large audience), then Rossi would have been the pianist.

As it was, the performances were mismatched to the music. The trios were fine; despite Glass' lumbering pianism necessitating frequent minor adjustments of ensemble downbeat, the limpid and alluring little diversions of Facades and, particularly, the Tissues from Naqoyqatsi (with Rossi on unfussy celeste squaring out nicely with cello in the simple exercises on familiar and characterful Glass models), provided colourful entertainments. The piano solos and duos (a vague and slightly inane Etude X with Rossi on hand drums was something of a low), as I have said, were another matter entirely. Not that one could have guessed from the adulatory reception accorded Glass at the end, which even included quite a number of people rising for a standing ovation. Even though these gestures should probably be understood more in terms of the composers long and distinguished compositional career than anything else, in the context of this performance they were still cause for some small disquiet.

By Stephen Graham

Picture/Photo: Philip Glass and Wendy Sutter


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