Expanding minimalism

CD REVIEWS

June 22, 2000|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Philip Glass

Symphony No. 3 and other works; Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra; Dennis Russell Davies, conductor. (Nonesuch 79581)

This addition to the Glass discography should delight the composer's fans and might even make a few believers out of previously minimalism-resistant folks.

Minimalism has come a long way since its early days back in the 1960s, when bare-bones melodic patterns churned at great length to rock-inspired pulsations. Glass and the other two major proponents of the minimalist style, Steve Reich and John Adams, have all been expanding the genre's horizons in recent years, adding richer textures, more elaborate melodic lines.

Adams, in particular, has grown more and more maximalist, so to speak, creating works that have the epic grandeur of the 19th century romantic repertoire.

Glass, too, has gone far beyond the parameters he initially set for himself. His Symphony No. 3, a 1995 work receiving its first recording here, is a case in point. It's a taut, alternately kinetic and deeply lyrical score for string orchestra. The intriguing, unexpected whiff of dissonance in the opening movement creates a suspense that is relived subsequently by colorful, playful pizzicato passages. Vibrant syncopation in the second and fourth movements exerts a typical Glassian pull, while the third movement's gorgeous, soaring violin solos and gentle trills generate the same sort of enveloping calm as in the sublime closing moments of the composer's opera "Satyagraha."

The disc includes another major work, "The Light," written for the Cleveland Orchestra in 1987. A tone poem of sorts about the 1887 speed-of-light experiment by Albert Michelson and Edward Morley, it goes from lush lyricism to the stock repetitive minimalist gestures that can send the uninitiated into paroxysms. The score doesn't hold together completely, but, at its best, makes an evocative, sparkling orchestral showpiece.

Excerpts from two Glass stage works, "The Voyage" and "the CIVIL warS," fill out the disc, which features polished orchestral playing under the careful guidance of Dennis Russell Davies.

***

Richard Strauss

Der Rosenkavalier. Evelyn Lear, Lucia Popp, et al.; Orchestra of La Scala; Carlos Kleiber, conductor. (Myto 3CDM 002.218)

Four Last Songs. Jane Eaglen; London Symphony Orchestra; Donald Runnicles, conductor. Also contains songs by Wagner and Berg. (Sony Classical SK 61720)

There are few aural pleasures as fulfilling as those generated by the vocal music of Richard Strauss - when the singing is inspired, that is. There's lots of that in this live recording of "Der Rosenkavalier" from La Scala in 1976. Never mind the restricted sonics, the coughing and other distractions. They're easily ignored in light of what is happening onstage and in the pit. This was a treasurable night in the opera house, starting with Carlos Kleiber's wild rush through the orchestral prelude and continuing with strongly etched characterizations by the principals.

Evelyn Lear is a wonderfully aristocratic, yet womanly and vulnerable Marschallin, singing with exceptional color and warmth. Brigitte Fassbaender makes an endearing Octavian, Lucia Popp a delicious Sophie, Karl Ridderbusch a vivid Baron Ochs. Kleiber's conducting never loses its momentum or its intensely expressive touch.

In the rarefied realm of Wagnerian sopranos, Jane Eaglen is understandably the hottest property today. Heck, she practically is the entire realm. Her voice is not just ample, but has a good deal of richness, if not necessarily a fully distinctive timbre. Her phrasing is always intelligent, if sometimes a little bland. You can find all of these gifts - and limitations - on her recording of Strauss' sublime "Four Last Songs."

Eaglen keeps her big sound from overwhelming the material, scaling back enough to create subtle touches; the last lines of "Im Abendrot" are an effective case in point. The tone gets a little tight at the upper end, and there is a certain emotional distance from the texts, with their autumnal imagery and gentle embrace of death. But if the performance, which has lots of competition on disc, does not prove indelible, there are significant rewards.

What really sells this release are the other items included. Eaglen shines, vocally and interpretively, in Wagner's "Wessendonck Lieder," making a telling mini-drama out of each song. Berg's "Seven Early Songs" also inspire committed, sumptuous vocalism.

Throughout, conductor Donald Runnicles offers sensitive support and gets a sensuous sound from the London Symphony.

***1/2 ("Der Rosenkavalier")

*** ("Four Last Songs")

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