Philip Glass produces a great deal of music. His works unfold through the repetition of rhythmic figures, and by juxtaposing straightforward tonal chords (major and especially minor) that frequently have no traditional harmonic association with each other. It’s a recognisable sound, quite distinct from the music of his Minimalist colleagues Steve Reich and John Adams, particularly in their most recent works. Of the three, Glass has the broadest following because of the films he has scored, and operas like Akhnaten and Einstein on the Beach which helped define the zeitgeist of the 1980s.
This new 2-disc set brings a selection of Glass’s music for solo piano. There have been previous such compilations and a pianist named Nicolas Horvath has been recording a complete series that reached its fifth volume last year. Levingston gives us the Etudes Nos 1, 2, 5, 6, 9, 10, 11, 12, 16 and 17; The Illusionist Suite (based on the music for a film); Dreaming Awake, described as “a deeply enigmatic, metaphysical study in sonority”; Metamorphosis No 2 (derived from Kafka’s story), and a piece inspired by an Allan Ginsburg poem, Wichita Vortex Sutra, during which the poem is recited by actor Ethan Hawke.
I do not find the piano to be the ideal instrument for Glass’s idiosyncratic muse. The instrument’s monochrome nature mercilessly reveals his note-spinning at its most formulaic. Tom Service, a music critic for The Guardian, called Glass’s Ninth Symphony “cringingly, emptily redundant”. I can think of no more apt description of Etude No 10 in this recital: over six minutes of an aggressively reiterated B Flat seventh chord. As for the Ginsburg piece, the poem feels dated while Glass’s simplistic accompaniment sounds uninspired. American pianist Bruce Levingston is a favourite of the composer, but his over-use of the sustaining pedal is wearing.