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Monday, March 30, 2015

Through the Listening Glass

VALENTINA LISITSA HAS CHOPS, which she proved with recordings of works by Rachmaninoff and Liszt. You need that kind of technical ability with the music of Philip Glass, particularly in the rhythmic challenges.

Lisitsa’s two-CD set of Glass’s music because seductively with “Opening” from the 1982 “Glassworks,” a six-movement work “intended to introduce my music to a more general audience than had been familiar with it up to then,” as the composer noted, and, indeed, it’s a gentle ripple of an introduction, a haunting, peaceful harmonic progression realized through an accented rocking motion. You’re lulled into what should by now be the familiar sound of minimalism.

But Glass remains its master. Aimless though some of the pieces may sound to grumpy ears, there’s always a well-planned trajectory with an affecting emotional payoff. This is particularly true in the five-movement “Metamorphosis,” which makes up much of disc two. The first part of it strikes a mood of uncertainty, bathed in a pentatonically-fueled sense of timelessness. A series of questioning gestures transforms into a sense of resolve in the second section, adding a gentle high-note filigree halfway through. Each successive movement begins in a contrasting place but revisits elements from movements past, so the metamorphosis as a whole is evolutionary – and when we revisit those questioning gestures in the final section (“Metamorphosis V”), they don’t seem to be at all unsure any more. That’s part of the magic of Glass’s music – its seeming ambiguity is never far from a freshly tinted change of mood.

Much of the program on these discs comprises film music, although that’s a loose designation with Glass, who isn’t bashful about borrowing from himself. “The Hours,” which netted Glass an Academy Award nomination, is represented by nine selections, of which “Tearing Herself Away” is particularly moving.

But “moving” is a tricky word to apply to these pieces. The repetition – a hallmark of minimalism – establishes a threshold of sound. Chords, arpeggios, tremolos, and the like create the carpet against which the smallest of changes becomes magnified. In a sense, you’re numbed in order to feel the music’s pain.

“Mad Rush,” which began life as part of “Fourth Series” from 1979, is a high point of the collection, a 16-minute soundscape the grows Schubertian in its pursuit of novel yet inevitable-sounding harmonic changes. Several distinct-sounding sections make up the piece, syncopated starbursts alternating with calm. And each return of the calm becomes more melodically complex, suggesting that the mad rush is as cerebral as its emotional, and leading to an unusually satisfying ending (meaning it doesn’t just break off mid-chord).

Lisitsa clearly has made this repertory her own, with faultless playing and an excellent ear for dynamic nuance, and the recorded sound envelops you just as completely as does the music.

Valentina Lisitsa Plays Philip Glass


Metroland Magazine, 26 March 2015

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