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Philip Glass's 8th Symphony

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P. Glass, Symphony No. 8, D. R. Davies / Bruckner Orchestra Linz
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Sys. 2 & 3

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Sy. 2

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Sy. 3

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Sy. 5

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Sy. 6
In the most telling moment of a Q&A at the Freer Gallery after a recital a year or two back, Philip Glass consoled composition students, worried about not quite being able to “find their own voice,” witht the advice that they ought not worry – finding their own voice was much easier than losing it again. A charmingly self-referential point from the man whose music you can recognize within a couple bars, the effect of which, however, sets in only after trudging through the entire work.

The symphonies of the Baltimore-native Philip Glass were not his most typical work when they first came out because they stray significantly from the purely minimalist pieces like Music in 12 Parts or Einstein on the Beach. For that very reason, Symphonies 2 and 3 present the best introduction to Glass for those who are otherwise not too keen on the idea of hearing one and the same modulated triad for two hours straight. Either Marin Alsop’s budget-friendly recording on Naxos or the Dennis Russell Davies recordings on Nonesuch are perfect for that purpose. (Alsop/Bournemouth may have a slight edge in the orchestral playing and offer them on one disc, but the accompanying pieces on DRD’s discs – the Concerto for Saxophone Quartet with the second symphony, The Light and interludes from CIVIL warS with the third symphony – make them better introductions, still; well worth the extra cost.)

Since then, however, his music has become more schematic, using blocks of musical elements in succession or parallel to create his effects, rather than relying on one or two continuous effects to dominate an entire piece. The ‘listenability’ is increased significantly, the music sounds more interesting – but at the cost of all the hypnotizing power. It now comes closer to a sort of “Fisher-Price Bruckner” meets Shostakovean climaxes – but the latter, for lack of sustaining power, with some coital malfunction.

That is pretty much a summary of the somewhat enjoyable if less than novel Symphony No. 8 that was just issued on Glass’s own label, Orange Mountain Music. This is, unless I miscount (does his Low Symphony count?), the fifth of now eight Glass symphonies commercially available: nos. 2 and 3 as mentioned, No. 5 (about the creation of man – harking back to his more operatic style) on Nonesuch, No. 6 (based on Allen Ginserg’s “Plutonian Ode” – for orchestra and solo soprano; his most intriguing offering in years) on Orange Mountain Music, and now No. 8. They seventh symphony (“A Toltec Symphony”) will surely be issued in due time; the world premiere of that symphony (Ionarts review here) suggested it might be worth hearing that work again.

To those who know Glass’s music, his works not only sound familiar but exude the soothing effect of having heard them before. Like the first movement of Symphony No. 8 which, except for the three-tone flute steps (up – and down, up – and down, up – and down) sounds exactly like… well… some other Glass work I can’t quite put my finger on right now. It’s more like the second or third symphonies than what had come since (although the musical language of the “Toltec” already harks back to those). In Glass’s own words:
The first movement is the longest of the three, almost 20 minutes in length. It begins with a statement of eight different ‘themes’. This series is then developed in whole or in part, recombined with various harmonies and melodic elements and culminates in a series of ‘stretto’-like passages producing a highly contrapuntal effect.

The second movement, about 12 minutes long, is in the form of a passacaglia with a series of melodic variations. The harmonic basis of the passacaglia is 16 measures long, which allows for some extended, at times quite oblique, melodic embellishments.

The third movement, by comparison to the first two, is quite brief – a short 7 minutes. However, what it lacks in length it makes up in density. The theme with its accompanying harmony is heard twice and then joined by a counter theme, also heard twice. An extended cadence serves as a coda to the third movement and the symphony itself.
Lucid enough a technical description; I would only question the description of the third movement as “dense.” It would suggest at least a very intense, knotty, perhaps even frantic movement: in fact it is even mellower than the rest - although, perhaps, with more notes. The Bruckner Orchester Linz plays very well under its principal conductor Dennis Russell Davies, and the sound is very good, the dynamics not so wide as to make the disc unplayable on mid-fi systems.

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