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3 May 2017

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Review- Glass

Philip Glass, Concerto for Harpsichord and Orchestra; The Concerto Project Volume IIs; Jillon Stoppels Dupree, harpsichord and The Northwest Chamber Orchestra Conducted by Ralf Gothoni; Orange Mountain Music: OMM0030
Reviewed by Pamela Nash.

This disc, comprising the Concerto for Harpsichord and Orchestra and the Piano Concerto No. 2, After Lewis and Clark, is the second in a four-volume series of concerti by Philip Glass on the Orange Mountain Music label.  Its release comes three years after the Harpsichord Concerto was written, ending much speculation about how Glass’s musical language would translate to the instrument.  In fact, the harpsichord proves to be a highly effective medium in a work whose part-jazz/part-baroque sound world marks a dramatic departure from the “sonic weather” of Glass’s extended transformation processes.  Of course the signature elements are there, but in a sort of microcosm, where the harmonic rhythm is faster and the motoric ostinatos and arpeggiations develop only briefly and often in unexpected directions.  Some listeners may find this compression of the style trite, verging on parody, whilst others will simply welcome its accessibility.  At the very least, the piece can be enjoyed for its playfulness and for the idiomatic harpsichord writing.  Glass clearly understands the instrument; he has always been an admirer of harpsichord literature and his familiarity with baroque figuration and structures is deftly adapted and woven into his own harmonic and rhythmic syntax.

Not all of Glass’s musical judgement in the Concerto is well-advised however.  The cartoon-ish “oompah” theme which disturbs the funky jazz groove of the third movement is one of several incongruities likely to incite derision, as is the frivolous ending: surely not the best the composer could muster.  In a disproportionately long second movement, overwrought trill sections narrowly avoid caricature, and the doggedly insistent three-against-two writing well overstays its welcome.  The movement’s overall “cut-and-paste” impression is however a little offset by the principal melody which sounds quite arresting when taken up by the violin against pizzicato bass accompaniment, and the ensuing contrapuntal development is at least enhanced by the intimate feel of the one-to-a-part scoring.

Of all three movements, the first improves most on repeated listening.  Characterised by haunting harmonic undulations, it is the most evocative of the Glass style, but baroque influences prevail and the dark chugging ponderousness is lifted by toccata-like improvisatory interludes, broken chord patterns and a more judicious use of trills.  The third movement is an extroverted, bravura piece and a brilliant showcase for the rich “scrunch” of the harpsichord’s lower register which is splendidly exploited by Glass.   Oompahs notwithstanding, it is the most consistent in character of all the movements; infected by a spirited jazziness and percussive pungency, underpinned by jazz bass lines and punctuated by metrical shifts which show off the articulative powers of the harpsichord.  The combination of harpsichord attack and textural density makes the impact of this movement percussive and lush all at once; indeed, this is perhaps the only  area of the Concerto which really says something exciting and new about the harpsichord.

Glass’s writing for chamber orchestra is beautifully balanced, the transparency of the orchestration bringing the harpsichord into sharp relief at all times.  The solo part is further spotlighted by the playing of harpsichordist Jillon Stoppels Dupree, who crosses over between the different worlds with consummate ease, exemplifying clarity of execution throughout.  In the third movement, she delineates the jazzy juxtapositions of 4 and 3 in the 7/8 passages with crystalline articulation, whilst in the freer sections of the first and second movements, the broader brushstrokes of her playing reflect 18th-century expressivity, with fluid phrasing and the use of gestural arpeggiation for sonorous harmonic emphasis.  Dupree is not afraid to lead the pace with her rhythmic flexibility in these sections, and the ensemble with conductor Ralf Gothoni follow impeccably.  Overall the music is imbued with a breadth and spaciousness which might well have been lost in other hands.

In conclusion, it has to be said that, despite the Concerto’s charms, Glass has missed the opportunity to do something of real significance for the harpsichord’s limited modern Concerto repertoire.  However, although it may not join the ranks of Martinu, Martin, de Falla et al., it will at least continue to be a subject of provocation and discourse, and thereby hopefully expand awareness of the harpsichord amongst the world’s wider musical audience.

Mention should also be made of the companion piece on the disc, Glass’s second Piano Concerto, with Paul Barnes as soloist. Written in commemoration of Lewis and Clark’s explorations of America, it is intended to convey energy, determination and the vastness of the land.  Glass’s banal use of the Native American flute in the central movement is an unfortunate irritation, but there is much to admire in this expansive, reflective work, particularly the different kinds of interplay between piano and orchestra, and the hypnotic polymetric energy of the first movement. Both works on this recording should appeal to anyone who enjoys the quintessential qualities of Glass’s music, and perhaps even to those who are as yet uninitiated.

The one used in the recording (the Franco-Flemish) was built by David Calhoun - date not known.  It was loaned by Prof. Carole Terry.

* The one used for the 2002 premiere was an 18th century French-style double built by Jillon's husband, Anderson H. Dupree around 1990.  He doesn't 'copy' specific instruments.

©Early Music Media Limited, 2011.