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CD of the Week – Philip Glass’s 9th Symphony

Philip Glass: 9th Symphony
OMM

The ninth symphony by Philip Glass, premiered three months ago in Linz, is out on record. That is all most readers will wish to know. The composer’s fans will rush out and buy it and the rest will mutter something about repetitive rhythms and shrug their shoulders. Both will be the poorer for that snap decision.

Glass, as conductor Dennis Russell Davies remarks in a program note, was not cut out to write a symphony. When they premiered his Low Symphony in 1992, neither composer nor conductor thought of calling it his first since there was never likely to be a second. Glass, however, defies easy categorization.

Over the next two decades he worked his way up to achieve a Beethoven, Schubert or Dvorak total. The 1st and 4th Glass symphonies are based on tunes by David Bowie and Brian Eno. The 5th and 7th use soloists and large chorus, the 6th sets a poem by Allen Ginzburg while the 3rd, modelled on Strauss’s Metamorphosen, is for strings alone.

The 9th, in line with the 2nd and 8th, is abstract music, rhythmically driven and unmistakable for the work of any other composer. Its second movement opens with a heart-melter of a Rachmaninov-lite theme, just waiting to be made into a movie (unless it has already been taken from one). There are more surprises here that you might expect from a minimalist. The Linz orchestra play well. Try before you buy.

3 Beethoven variations CDs

Jeremy Denk
Nonesuch

The ever-thoughtful pianist plays two books of Ligeti Etudes either side of Beethoven’s final sonata, the opus 111. It works – just. Ligeti’s skittish riffs pave a polite path for the massive C-minor cragface and, quite wittily, take us back down. Denk’s fingers know no fear.

Andreas Staier
Harmonia Mundi

It must have seemed a good idea on paper to play a dozen other people’s variations on Diabelli’s theme before arriving at Beethoven’s, but it’s a long wait before you reach the main course. Staier is deftly lyrical on a mock-period fortepiano.

Stephen Osborne
Hyperion

Osborne’s solo Beethoven cycle has reached the three sets of Bagatelles and smaller variations. His touch is so sure that never for a moment does one hear these trivia as casual amusements, rather as flasher of insight into the composer’s lighter side. Für Elise alone is worth the price of purchase.

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Norman Lebrecht is a regular presenter on BBC Radio 3 and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and other publications. He has written 12 books about music, the most recent being Why Mahler? He hosts the blog Slipped Disc.