Philip Glass

Philip Glass
Violin Concerto
Symphony No.7 (A Toltec Symphony) [UK premiere]

Gidon Kremer (violin)

BBC Symphony Chorus

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Dennis Russell Davies

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 12 August, 2009
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Philip GlassThe first BBC Prom (a late-night affair) to wholly feature the music of Philip Glass drew a large crowd, as much as three times the size of that present for the Harrison Birtwistle gig a week earlier. This says much for Glass’s mass appeal.

Like Birtwistle, Glass draws his fair share of controversy – yet the two composers couldn’t be further apart musically. With Glass the problem has often centred on a perceived over-simplicity in his writing, particularly in the works for orchestra. This was not an issue in the Seventh Symphony, “A Toltec Symphony”, as moving an utterance as he has made.

This 35-minute work was receiving its first UK performance, despite its completion five years ago. It awaits a first recording, too. Influences are keenly heard – Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms” came to mind in the second movement, while the lament in the third drew comparisons with Bruckner through its frequent and poignant use of silence, always followed by onward motion. At times the third movement even approached the second movement of Bach’s First Brandenburg Concerto, in style and even scoring!

The ‘Toltec’ subtitle is in honour of a widely practised, ancient religion predating the Aztecs, and now restricted to a smaller region in the North of Mexico. Clearly their way of living has had an effect on the composer, who set direct quotations for the chorus whose meanings were unclear but whose sentiments were directly communicated. The composer’s wide-open orchestration was noticeably more in tune with music of the plains, suggesting Copland at times but more often influenced by Stravinsky. Through this he provided the music of a meditative dance, unfolding in a steady meter of five-plus-seven and hypnotically moving around the Hall, heads nodding in time in the Arena.

Dennis Russell Davies kept a close eye on proceedings and the orchestra, in particular its percussion and wind sections, were extremely well drilled, the chorus punching out its syllables with admirable clarity. The third movement was particularly moving, the four phrases alternating either side of silence until a climax was reached – it felt like an elegy, and hung in the air for a long time afterwards, with flautist Rosemary Eliot delivering a moving closing solo, and organist Malcolm Hicks well balanced with the orchestra.

Gidon Kremer. Photograph: Stefan BremerGlass himself was present, and fully appreciative of the conductor and the performance. Before the performance of the Violin Concerto he gave a brief interview with Verity Sharp, who introduced Gidon Kremer, who made the first recording of the piece. Kremer played with a typical freedom of expression, getting round the tricky contours of the composer’s spidery arpeggiated writing, some of which lies awkwardly beneath the fingers. There were occasional issues of balance between violin and orchestra, the venue not helping to pinpoint the more detailed counterpoint, but the two forces nonetheless stayed together, the athletic wind-writing in incisive unison. The central ‘Chaconne’, the emotional heart of the concerto, was given a baleful bassoon line on which to build, and made the most impact of the three movements.

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