Glass / Wilson: Einstein on the Beach, Highlights / Changing Image of Opera
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In celebration of the 2012 revival of Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Orange Mountain Music and BAM present Einstein on the Beach as a one CD highlight collection of the entire opera, with a companion DVD of the film The Changing Image of Opera affordably priced and available for the first time. This never-before-heard recording is drawn from live performances at BAM in 1984 and produced by Kurt Munkacsi. The Chris A. Verges film The Changing Image of Opera documents the 1984 production at BAM and has never received wide distribution. This OMM recording hopes to bring this exciting package to the public at a reasonable price.
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Interestingly, I wanted to do my homework to know which bits I could safely miss and which I wanted to be sure to catch. Instead, I ended up glued to the performance from start to finish.
Anyway, I got exactly what I hoped for in this recording. For those who haven't had the chance to see the real deal, this will be kind of like watching the circus through a knothole in the fence. It gives you a taste, but definitely not the whole meal.
First was the 1978 Tomato Records set, later released on CBS Masterworks, then Sony. At 160 minutes, this was greatly reduced from the full work. Later, in 1993, a Nonesuch recording, on CD, was 190 minutes long, still a lot shorter than the entire work.
But until now, no recording was released of the 1984 performances. Philip Glass's Orange Mountain Music has done that now, in two versions. This release, a CD and DVD set, contains a 77-minute CD of "highlights" of the work, along with a DVD of a documentary, The Changing Image of Opera, made during the 1984 production, but rarely seen. The second is a 217-minute "complete" recording, available only by download on the iTunes Store (at least for now), and is the most complete recording to date.
The 1984 recording has several advantages over the others. First, it's a live recording, showing much better how the work actually sounded. Second, there is no attempt to make the sound lush and rich, as on the Nonesuch recording, which, again, brings it closer to its performance.
The disadvantage of this release is its brevity. If you're just tangentially interested in Glass and Einstein, these 77 minutes do give a good overview of the main musical themes of the work, but if you find you like this work, you need to get the longer release. However, the documentary included here is certainly worth the price of the set.
I'm looking forward to both audio and video releases of the current revival of Einstein on the Beach. Finally, we will be able to see and hear the entire work. I just hope that it's not too "smooth," that the years between the first productions and the present haven't led to too much perfection. One of the charms of minimalism in the 1970s and early 1980s is its spontaneity. This was music that went against the grain at the time, but which has now become more or less mainstream. I hope the radical nature of the original work comes through in the new performances.
This is an odd piece - a work that takes some ideas from Einstein's brain (including his involvement with the Manhattan Project that built the first Atomic Bomb) and bounces them around in strange ways (extended trial scenes, a space ship, dancing that goes on forever with only minimal changes in sequence exactly the way Einstein imagined motion and energy and mass, a woman who goes on forever about seeing beach caps in red, yellow and blue but remembering that she had decide to avoid the beach, etc). The music is of course repetitious in the Glassian fashion, but in this work the lack of variation becomes tiring. The stage movement, sets, and the visual concepts are visually spectacular - the moment of truth is the scene that subtly addresses the bomb - but sadly the work ends with a sappy little repeated speech about love. That sort of pops the sphere of experimental theater like a balloon gone limp.
An important piece yes, but this release gives the novice plenty of material to experience the work - without the need for a seat cushion. It is like experiencing The Ring of Wagner in its entirety - an important event to see at least once. Grady Harp, October 13