Wednesday 18 May 2011

Review: Philip Glass Violin Concerto No. 2

Philip Glass - Violin Concerto No.2
The American Four Seasons
Robert McDuffie (violin)
London Philharmonic/Marin Alsop
Orange Mountain Music OMM0072

No contemporary composer has penetrated the popular consciousness quite as Philip Glass has; something that still rankles with much of the new music establishment. Mention his name in the wrong company and you're as likely to get a snort of derision as anything and there are times when the most long-suffering of Glass fans might be inclined to agree. The more discerning Glass followers are well used to the mechanisms of the Glass lottery, which might be defined as a frustrating lack of quality control from the creator of one of the most instantly recognisable and bewitching voices in modern music. Now Glass returns to the violin concerto, a form he last tackled in 1987. The good news is that the Glass is alright; the bad is that the ship's taken a direct hit from one of its own.

Certainly, this new violin concerto, subtitled The American Four Seasons would not exist without Robert McDuffie, the American violinist who asked for the kind of 'Rock and Roll' Glass 'that turned David Bowie on'. McDuffie was responsible for the inspired inclusion of harpsichord and synthesiser into the concerto's instrumentation, a request that does indeed bring Glass’s music closer to his late ’seventies heyday of Einstein on the Beach and Koyaanisqatsi.

But it's McDuffie who proves to be the largest barrier to success in this recording, taken live from the work's European premiere in 2010. I heard McDuffie play Glass's First Violin Concerto in the same hall last June and was alarmed by the quality of his playing; an inconsistent and wiry tone coupled with shaky intonation gave the impression that he was uncomfortable in music one might reasonably assume he was very familiar with. The same is true here, and if ever a performance worked against a new piece of music, surely this is it.

Glass's new concerto consists of a prologue, four substantial movements and three interludes for solo violin titled 'songs'. Which movement corresponds to which season isn't revealed and judging by interviews with Glass, McDuffie and conductor Marin Alsop, no one agrees on an interpretation. Letting performers and audiences decide for themselves is a nice idea, though in reality there's not much to indicate which season might be represented; these four movements are, after all, mainly four different shades of Glass.

Not everything in the Concerto works but this is music which grows in appeal with repeated hearings. Movement II seems initially to be a familiar concoction of stock Glass moves, but as it grows it becomes an affecting and delicate waltz. The best is saved for last; Movement IV, a zany toe-tapping slice of American gothic, recalls the best scores of Danny Elfman in making the greatest use of the harpsichord and synthesiser.

I'm sure that Glass's violin writing doesn't fall under the fingers with great ease; the arpeggiated oscillations of the First Concerto throw up some awkward passages that don't sit too well on the instrument. Even so, McDuffie can't sustain the unaccompanied passages or give them any kind of shape. He's very ably assisted by Alsop and the London Philharmonic, but ultimately, he's simply not good enough and I doubt the orchestra would have booked him had he not come attached to this prestigious project. It is to be hoped that this appealing work will be re-visited and re-recorded by more able soloists, but I fear that McDuffie’s performance may dissuade interested parties from lingering over this recording for long.

This review originally appeared at Musicweb-International

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