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Music Review: Various Artists – The Essential Philip Glass

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Essential is in the mind of the beholder, or in the case of The Essential Philip Glass, Sony’s three-disc release in celebration of the 75th birthday of the distinguished composer, in the ear of the listener. If by essential you mean a representative selection of a composer’s work, there are certainly those who would quarrel with the selections on the album.

This is a man who wrote a significant number of works in a variety of genres, some of which don’t seem to have been deemed essential. For example, there is nothing from his symphonies or concertos, and only one from his work for the theater. If by essential you mean a collection of his best work, the same caveat would seem to apply. If by essential you mean enough of his work to give a general idea of what a composer’s work is all about, perhaps you are coming closer to what essential might mean in the title of the Sony release.

What Sony has done is put together 31 tracks from the Glass canon, running well over three hours and focusing on self contained, shorter works, and sampling selections from longer works.

Instead of sampling 31 different works, often it has chosen to include several selections from what it obviously considers seminal works. Thus, for example, there are four pieces from the opera Einstein On the Beach and three from Glassworks. What it gives up in breadth, it makes up for with depth. Not necessarily a bad choice, except that Sony cut short some of the longer selections and instead of putting the selections together, it seems to have scattered them around the three discs haphazardly. Or, if there is some method to the arrangement of the music, I’m not sure I understand what it is. Why not put the selections from Glassworks together? Why not do it in chronological order?

That said, it has given us over three hours of very fine listening, culled from previous recordings that are mostly from the ’80s. It features Glass stalwarts as well as a roster of celebrated collaborators. Michael Riesman conducts The Philip Glass Ensemble on the lion’s share of tracks and Glass himself plays piano on “Metamorphosis IV,” “Opening” from Glassworks, and “Wichita Vortex Sutra.”

Other artists contributing include Yo Yo Ma (three selections from Naqoyqatsi), and Linda Ronstadt, The Roches, and the Kronos Quartet (“Forgetting” from Songs From Liquid Days). Robert Shaw conducts the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and chorus in a selection from Itaipu, and Dennis Russell Davies conducts the Stuttgart State Opera Orchestra and Chorus in a number of selections from Akhnaten.

The Essential Philip Glass

While Glass is probably most often associated with the Minimalist musical movement that emerged in the ’60s, it is a cubby hole he often rejects. Certainly his earlier work contains many of the characteristics associated with Minimalism—especially the almost hypnotic repetitions, and although his later work has clearly gone beyond Minimalism, “repetitive structures” are still an important compositional element.

In some sense, it is this Minimalist element that may well account for the paradox that the man who is thought of as the creator of experimental avant garde music may also be the most recognizable composer of serious classical music of the day. His music is both challenging and accessible, and The Essential Philip Glass is filled with examples of this contradiction.

Longtime fans of the composer probably are familiar with everything on this album. Newcomers to Glass will find this an effective introduction to the prolific composer. There is a 1993 single-disc album, also called The Essential Philip Glass, which has 13 tracks, 11 of which are also in the new collection. They were essential then, so I guess they are essential now.

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About Jack Goodstein