Violin Concertos of John Adams & Philip Glass
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Leave it to Christoph Eschenbach and the Houston Symphony to deliver one of the more impressive classical discs of 1999: a pairing of the violin concertos of John Adams and Philip Glass. Hearing the works of these two American music mavericks side-by-side is a study in contrasts: Adams's postmodernist composition from 1993 is filled with spooky overtones, as the violin threads its way through the piece, always at the forefront. It doubles as a ballet (the NYC Ballet cocommissioned the piece), yet never forgets the traditional violin-concerto form. Glass's composition from the late '80s is less complex. It, too, is based around a traditional structure of three movements, but these are passages we've heard from the composer for the last decade, though never quite so well assembled.
Gidon Kremer has recorded two earlier discs featuring both the Adams and Glass concertos, but the sonics (especially on his Glass disc) are less impressive than they are here. Robert McDuffie's violin isn't as piercing as Kremer's--a shame during the eerily gorgeous second movement of Adams's piece--but there's a pleasant balance to this new disc, and the Houston Symphony sounds fantastic. All in all, it's a great package of two contemporary classical-music compositions everyone should hear. --Jason Verlinde
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Glass wrote a concerto that is a hybrid of minimalism, neoromanticism and neobaroque styles. It sounds like an Antonio Vivaldi violin concerto mixed in with doses of repetition, all cloaked in a sultry and dark sound with a backbeat thrown in at times. Showing an evolution from Glass’ more “hardcore” early minimalism, the concerto isn’t true minimalist music. While it’s more repetitive than much other art music, it doesn’t have the heavy insistence of Glass’ earlier style, and shows a level of repetition closer to “crossover”. Despite its almost neobaroque sensibility, it’s also stylistically very cohesive. Glass has stolen, not borrowed, some elements from other composers, for a unified result that sounds like his music, not someone else’s. The result is fetching.
Trying to look at the work with some objectivity, I wondered whether Glass’ concerto maybe lacked some of the detail that adds richness to really great pieces of music, and whether it was a bit a too stylized and sleek, and thought that, yes, it bears these flaws. Then I would put the concerto on again and enjoy another wonderful listening experience.
Like Glass, John Adams is considered a minimalist, but by 1993, when he wrote this concerto, he had branched out from his earlier work. His Violin Concerto is a traditional American composition in a style owing something to modern but traditional midcentury US composers. While Glass has transformed his earlier minimalism, Adams here has simply left it altogether. The Adams boasts an opening “Quarter-note = 78” movement that strikes me as superb. It is often dissonant, but written with inventiveness and craft. The Chaconne that follows – both it and the Glass have slow movements built from the ground bass form that undergirds this baroque form – I think is less interesting as is the short, tempestuous finale that follows. So I count Adams’ concerto as a mixed result, but the opening “78” is outstanding.
This release boasts excellent execution. Robert McDuffie presents the solo role with confidence and excellence. McDuffie premiered Glass’ 2nd concerto, which written in 2009, many years after both this recording and the writing of the 1st concerto (1987), so he is a long-term collaborator with Glass. Christoph Eschenbach and the Houston Symphony provide strong support, making for a performance that is assured and involved throughout. The audio engineering is likewise terrific, good enough to use as a demonstration of high-level digital engineering. Glass and Adams couldn’t have hoped for a better presentation of their music.
I expect this to be among my favorite recordings in the future. Warmly recommended.
The label on the disc and on the jewel case were well-designed and provided lots of information about the Adams and Glass concertos. When I played the disk, I heard an outstanding version of Mahler's Fifth Symphony directed by Yoel Levi with the Atlanta Symphony. I was so impressed with Telarc's production of the Mahler that I returned the disk and asked that I have the opportunity to hear their equally fine work on the Adams and Glass concertos. Despite my request, I was sent an identical disc with another fine version of Mahler's Fifth about two weeks later. I enjoyed the opportunity to again review all the information about the Adams and Glass concertos on the disk and the jewel case, but, sadly, had to return the disc because I already had as many versions of Mahler's Fifth that I wanted.
If you want a really good rendition of Mahler's Fifth (I mean that), by all means, order Telarc's Violin Concertos of John Adams and Philip Glass. If you do not, I suggest you refrain from ordering this disc until Telarc gets a handle on its quality control.