BROOKLYN RIDER Plays Philip Glass
String Quartets – Nos. 1-5
Orange Mountain Music OMM0074
Philips Glass’s string quartets, like much of the composer’s music, have steadily worked their way into the repertoire, receiving regular performances and fitful representation on disc. Yet integral collections of the five Glass quartets remain rare, so this new complete set from the young New York-based ensemble Brooklyn Rider makes a useful addition to the discography.
Most attention will focus on the suite Glass extracted from his score for the 1997 movie adaptation of Martin Sherman’s stage success Bent, here receiving its first recording (the original soundtrack by the Emerson Quartet has never been released). Cast in eight, mostly brief movements, it alternates the composer’s patented Minimalist pulsing with a pensive lyricism. The penultimate movement provides the most striking inspiration here, with its majestic chorale-like theme, an effective prelude to the elegiac finale. Glass’s Third Quartet is likewise taken from a film score (Mishima) yet apart from the third section, ‘Grandmother and Kimitake,’ there is little Eastern feel to the music, and the quartet members falter rhythmically at times.
Glass’s String Quartet No. 4 was written in memoriam to the artist Brian Buczak. It opens with a searching opening movement that grows increasingly agitated and a middle movement that is among Glass’s most profound and deeply felt inspirations. Yet you wouldn’t know that from this performance, which is surprisingly bland and pallid in expression with a refined tonal surface and little guts or dramatic involvement underneath.
And so it goes. The performance of the Quartet No. 2 (Company) is acceptably efficient but can use more rhythmic bite. The Fifth Quartet receives the finest performance on the disc, and if more of the other works had some of the drive and energy of the playing in the fast movements here, this set would be more recommendable overall.
One reason that there have been few complete sets of the Glass quartets is that, even for the composer’s admirers, there’s not a lot of stylistic variety or range in this oeuvre. In fact, it is Glass’s early First Quartet, which now seems like one of the stronger works in the series, with its dissonant, chromatic and aggressive style, that has worn better over the years than some of the chromium chugga-chugga.
I’d like to be more complimentary about this release but I don’t feel Brooklyn Rider is entirely inside this idiom, with refined, well blended playing that feels too literal and on the surface. The recording’s forward balance doesn’t help and there is a decidedly bland quality to the music-making here that doesn’t do Glass’s quartet any favors. Amazingly, given these performances are appearing on Glass’s own Orange Mountain Music label, this set offers only a brief note by the group about this project and not a single word about the music – which is a disgrace.
Brooklyn Rider is alone in offering the Bent Suite – a less-than-essential bonus – on disc. I have not heard the Smith Quartet’s set, but, even though incomplete, I would recommend single discs of the Kronos Quartet (Quartets Nos. 2-5) on Nonesuch, or the Carducci Quartet (Nos. 1-4) on Naxos over this new release.