Einstein on the Beach – Lyrics by the composer; spoken text by Christopher Knowles, Lucinda Childs & Samuel M. Johnson
Actors: Lucinda Childs, Samuel M. Johnson, Paul Mann & Sheryl Sutton
Paul Zukovsky (violin)
Small and Large Choruses
The Philip Glass Ensemble
Recorded 14-24 June 1976 in Big Apple Recording Studios, New York City
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: April 2012
CD No: SONY OPERA HOUSE
88697985152 (4 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 45 minutes
This is a ‘straight’ re-issue of what was a full-price CBS LP release documenting the first production of Einstein on the Beach, which established Philip Glass’s – and co-creator (in terms of staging, direction and design) Robert Wilson’s – international reputation. Though rarely performed, Einstein on the Beach has acquired an iconic status as a piece of revolutionary music-theatre.
Designated an ‘opera’, it does not operate on conventional operatic terms, there being no plot to speak of nor designated characters. However, it was performances at the Metropolitan Opera in New York which drew attention to ‘Einstein’ and effectively launched Glass’s subsequent operatic career. He followed it with two more so-called ‘portrait-operas’ with Satyagraha (documenting scenes from the early life of Ghandi) and Akhnaten. Some Glass admirers feel that this trilogy comprises his strongest achievement – to date – in the operatic field.
This first recording positively bristles with energy, vitality and commitment – though there are gentler, more reflective sections. Glass’s ‘minimalist’ (a term he prefers not to use) tendencies are here deployed with a vengeance. Aggressively repeated arpeggios, scales and other figurations, whether on solo instruments or in chorus or ensemble, form the basis of much of the music. Paul Zukovsky is fearless in this regard (Einstein was himself a violinist).
Spoken texts are often superimposed over an instrumental accompaniment and choral voices obsessively chant numbers and solfège, thus further distancing the listener from any sense of a conventional ‘operatic’ narrative. Indeed, one has to engage with ‘Einstein’ on its own terms – it will prove to be absorbing and stimulating – or not. Perhaps the ideal medium for a home audience will be via DVD, since sound and vision are so inextricably linked – though no such version exists at present.
There is an audio alternative – a 1993 ‘remake’ on Nonesuch. That boasts a more-comfortable overall sound, with choral singing notably more secure (there are some intonation issues in this first version). In duration terms it is longer, yet on three CDs – Sony has missed an opportunity to reduce the number of discs for this re-release. Completists will want both, as the re-make has revised spoken texts as well as extended musical scenes.
In any event, this debut recording of Philip Glass’s first major work will want to be heard by anyone interested in late-20th-century opera. It will serve as excellent preparation for the first British stage performances at the Barbican Centre in May 2012.