There is no piece of contemporary music that is as successful as Philip Glass’ Etudes for piano.
I’m not evaluating the aesthetics—the Etudes are not the new music I most admire, but they are an important addition to Glass’ catalog. The best of them, and there are some excellent, beautiful, exciting Etudes, both codify and expand on his familiar language. The least of them are least in the typical Glass way of repeating earlier material in a less interesting way than it had first appeared.
This is success measured in a different and important way; how far has the music reached? Quite far, and farther faster than any other new work I can remember from the last 40 years.
The entire set has been available since the debut recording by Maki Namekawa in 2014 (followed quickly by an inexpensive print and digital version of the score, something I wish was available for every new piece). Since then there have been at least three performances of the complete book in New York alone, and an amazing five other recordings of the full set, while an additional six CDs have selections (and this is not counting samplers and compilations). This month three of the complete recordings came on the market.
This is worthwhile music to have in your library, and de rigeur for the composer’s fans. But for most listeners, one recording will be sufficient. I listened to the new ones so (and others) so you don’t have to:
- Anton Batagov (Orange Mountain): Bagatov is little known here (I saw him playing Triadic Memories at the Park Avenue Armory the weekend Lou Reed died) but apparently has a following in Russia. He has a poetic approach to this music, highlighting every bit he finds beautiful—and there is a great deal of beauty to be found. This is a live recording, and starts with an excellent Etude No. 1, full of expression and a feeling of weighty energy. You can hear the concentration in his playing as he goes along, and it’s fairly captivating. And you can also hear his concentration flag as his energy wanes in the second book, which apparently followed an intermission. His playing grows wan in the second book, a disappointment considering the start.
- Jeroen van Veen (Brilliant Classics): Van Veen seems set on recording every piece of minimalist and post-minimalist piano music there is. He’s already recorded Glass’ piano catalogue, and now the Etudes. His approach to the music stands out, he uses much more pedal than his peers, for example. This touches the edge of mannerism, like in his glacial Etude No. 5. But van Veen brings out a greater variety of expressive ideas than any of the other complete recordings. He knows how to set phrases and sections against each other to illuminate their workings. The sound is rich, dark, and deep, appealing in this music. This is one of my recommendations.
- Jenny Lin (Steinway and Sons). An uneven and unsatisfying recording, a surprise coming from this musician. Part of the problem is the sound, which is boxed in, brittle, a little harsh. The other part is that her approach is too often mechanical. Etude No. 1, for example, is machine-like, and this is not avant-garde music, it follows the traditions of baroque keyboard music, and not least Chopin. There needs to be some musicianship, some flexibility, some expression. Other performances are better, like No. 3, but others are irritating, like Nos. 12 and 13. I can’t recommend this.
And there’s still Namekawa’s debut recording, also on Orange Mountain. This has not been bettered and is also a recommendation. A rough comparison between her and van Veen is that his approach is baroque while her’s is romantic. Everything has a sense of drama and intensity found on no other recording—this is exciting and often thrilling. If you want and can, get both her and van Veen, this is music that deserves different ideas. But if you can only get one, get Namekawa.
PS: I also strongly recommend this recording from Vikingur Ólafsson. He opens with a stunning Glassworks – Opening, then plays a selection of the Etudes, and also some arrangements of them, and his balance of excitement and poetry is excellent, as is his touch.