Thursday, January 16, 2020

Horvath’s Philip Glass Project: Volume Six

courtesy of Naxos of America

Today my catching-up efforts have led me to the release by Grand Piano of the sixth volume of Glassworlds. This is pianist Nicolas Horvath’s project to record the solo piano works of Philip Glass, which he launched in 2015. Like many such projects, this one takes its time in progressing. This latest release, given the title America, followed the release of the fifth volume over a distance of about three years.

The album features two world premiere recordings. One is the second piece, composed in 1978, that Glass entitled “A Secret Solo.” The other is a piano arrangement of three excerpts from the opera Appomattox, which was given its world premiere by the San Francisco Opera on October 5, 2007. These are the only orchestral passages in the opera, and Horvath extracted them from the vocal score that Glass had prepared for rehearsals.

The album also includes a “significantly historic” composition, “Music in Contrary Motion,” composed in 1969 and one of the three pieces to be performed at the landmark pubic concert given by the Philip Glass Ensemble at the Guggenheim Museum on January of 1970. The opening selection is Paul Barnes’ solo piano arrangement of Glass’ second piano concerto, given the title “After Lewis and Clark.” Finally, there are two recordings of “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” the first a piano solo and the second performed with narration of Allen Ginsberg’s text by Florient Azoulay.

As has been the case on past recordings, Horvath approaches all of these compositions with solid technique. He appreciates the extent to which any Glass composition, taken its entirety, involves a structure based on a well-defined process; and the process, in turn, is “based on repetition and change” (as Glass himself wrote in his memoir Words Without Music. Within the context of those ground rules, Horvath then appreciates the need to take a rhetorical stance in the course of unfolding that process. It is through rhetorical expressiveness that the “repetitive structures” (as Glass calls them) on the printed page need not sound repetitious.

Nevertheless, it would be fair to say that the subtleties of Horvath’s approach to rhetoric may not be apprehended after listening to this album for the first time. This should not be taken as a problem. One cannot appreciate how rhetoric modulates the interrelationship of repetition and change until one appreciates what is being repeated and the direction in which change is leading. Thus, while it is tempting to treat the repetitive structures as a soothing context for meditation, doing so would distract from the ways in which Horvath summons up his own distinctive approach to performance.

While he is consistently reliable in achieving this goal, the one difficulty resides in the narrated version of “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” Whether this was a matter of microphone technique or Azoulay’s command of the English language, Ginsberg’s poetry was given a painfully inadequate account. Granted, there was a scratchy quality to Ginsberg’s own voice that could rise above just about any music that happened to be accompanying him; and, in comparison, Azoulay’s voice is just too polished. Nevertheless, Ginsberg’s words clearly mattered to Glass. (If they did not, he would not have prepared the version with narration.) Azoulay’s performance is just too murky to do justice to what Glass had in mind.

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