Philip Glass: Orpheé; Portland Opera, Anne Manson
This will certainly please fans of Glass, and is a fascinating example of how his late style is developing. Like La Belle et la Bête, this is an operatic adaptation of an accidental libretto, i.e. the script from a Cocteau movie. It suffers from the same problematic detail, Glass trying to wedge the French phrases, diction and meter into his fairly rigid style, which produces a mix of good vocal music and parts where the singers have to try and spit out the words with compressed desperation. That being said, the music is fine and surprising. After going through a polytonal period, Glass seems to be synthesizing different structural ideas into his usual juxtaposition of phrases, and he’s using a lot of rhythms that are new to him. Large sections sound more than a little like ragtime/cakewalk in a way that is completely charming and adds drama and expression. As always, he quotes himself, even using sections identical to the previous work, but this new piece is mostly fresh and winning, seemingly fine live performances at the Portland Opera from the musicians, the conductor and a large cast, especially Philip Cutlip in the title role, and a good recording.
An interesting interview, but Ainsley is wrong about Cocteau being the first to use special effects in movies. Georges Melies, anyone?
Mahler: Songs with Orchestra ; Susan Graham, Thomas Hampson, San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas
The final CD in Tilson Thomas’ Mahler cycle is as good as one would expect. Hampson is great in the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Graham is even better – deeply expressive, supple, beautiful tone – in the Rückert-Lieder. The set is rounded off with five selections from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the last track is “Urlicht.” The playing and conducting are beyond exquisite, the SACD sound is like sitting inside the orchestra. SFS Media has produced the finest Mahler cycle, by far – nothing else is in the same league in terms of playing, musicality, expression. One may not agree with the interpretive choices, but there is no Mahler playing like this. The only drawback is the price of the discs, which for Mahler lovers should be no object, but perhaps down the road the producers might repackage it all in a box, for their additional profit and at some savings to the consumer.
Arvo Pärt: Symphony No. 4, Kanon Pokajanen ; Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Estonia Philharmonic Chamber Choir, Tönu Kaljuste
Severely beautiful, and very welcome on CD (the only previous recording had been an iTunes download in the DG Concerts series). Pärt is slowly, inexorably exploring Neo-Romanticism, and his Symphony No. 4 is minimalist in the way Bruckner is minimalist, a large, open scale architecture filled with repeated, small scale gestures. The second, “Affannoso” movement is mesmerizing. The make-weight, excerpts from his Kanon Pokajanen , is luminous, but considering ECM is rehashing this material and charging full price for the CD, it’s not a great value.
Steve Reich: Double Sextet, 2×5 ; eighth blackbird, Bang on Can
Reich is always good, and these are his finest pieces since City Life. It’s also the most sheerly enjoyable Reich recording out there. Double Sextet is like Hard-Bop Reich, taking elements of the “blues” of the early masterpiece, Four Organs, filtering it through the developments of Three Tales, and creating a piece of music that swings more than anything I’ve heard from him. It’s extroverted, basically simple but not simplistic. 2×5 is Reich as Prog-Rock and is not far removed from ultra-high order King Crimson; shimmering guitar, razor edge, interlocking complex rhythms, even a drum kit. The former piece won the Pulitzer, the latter may be even better. Great performances and a great CD.
P.S. The baby seemed to dig Mahler and Reich the best.