Philip Glass: Heroes Symphony, The Light
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Marin Alsop
Philip Glass is my favourite composer [which might well set me apart from yer average classical record reviewer] so you’d expect that I would probably have some difficulty in giving an unbiased account of this new recording of the man’s music. This would possibly be complicated by the fact that I have previously found his interpretations of David Bowie’s [& Brian Eno’s] work in Low Symphony and Heroes Symphony to have been disappointing, thoroughly unexciting and among his least interesting efforts, whilst the 2 original rock albums remain among some of the best ever produced. So I guess this sort of evens the score when it comes to a new recording of Heroes Symphony. That is to say I want a new piece of Glassware to be great but I come to it without too much hope it being so. It could almost be a level playing field.
Interestingly, this recording was made within the same week by the Bournemouth SO under Marin Alsop as the Naxos ‘Carmina Burana’ reviewed adjacent to this. The excellent quality of that recording raises my hopes somewhat. So here goes…..
Well, I’m let off the hook somewhat at the outset, because the opening track is the almost tone-poem like piece, ‘The Light,’ with which I am unfamiliar, as far as I can remember. It is a quite comforting start as its first theme takes the form of a characteristic sequence of Glass ‘arpeggiation’, which I have adored ever since first hearing it as the mainstay of the accompaniment in the wonderful Koyaanisqaatsi film.
The notes tell us the work was commissioned by Case Western Reserve University to celebrate the centenary of The Michelson-Morley Experiment of 1887 which confirmed the uniform speed of light and its theoretical explanation in Einstein’s Relativity Theories some 20 years later.
The repeated busy and exciting rhythmic phrasing is typical of Glass’s illustration of Modern Life and I believe it is this which makes his music so relevant to me. The Bournemouth SO under Alsop gets it absolutely right and this makes the CD worthwhile on its own. It is a truly great recording and at 23’43” deserves to become a standard concert number.
Having been put in this euphoric mood, perhaps Heroes will turn out to be more acceptable than formerly….
Indeed, the eponymous first movement proves to be quite interesting, although it has to be said this might be almost entirely due to the exceptional quality of the orchestra. ‘Abdulmajid’ which apparently appeared as a bonus track on some editions of the former recording is pretty un-Glass-like in that it is a menacing and progressive rhythmic march not entirely dissimilar to Ravel’s Bolero. It is impressive and would fit nicely into a desert crossing scene in a movie. Whether it is a first division piece of music is another matter – still open to debate. ‘Sense of Doubt’ is more in keeping with the ethos of the Bowie album in my view. It has a sense of industrial Germanic darkness which pervades the original Cold War Berlin work, but I never really felt Philip Glass quite caught hold of this threatening black and white atmosphere and he doesn’t quite grasp the nettle here either. Perhaps there are just too many big skies in America.
Pleasant as it is, ‘Sons of the Silent Age’ bears little resemblance to the track on Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ as I hear it and typifies the bewilderment I originally experienced on hearing it and Low Symphony ten years ago. Perhaps I need to listen again to the symphonies in parallel with the rock versions. The light might yet dawn!
‘Neukoln’ is again closer to what I am looking for but is somehow a bit too ‘nice’ to be associated with the original, but would stand up well if differently titled. It’s as if it had been transposed in space and time - almost like Titus Groan had stumbled into Hundred Acre Wood.
Finally, ‘V2 Schneider’ similarly disappoints – the jagged menace injected by the Bowie-Eno Axis being entirely absent.
In the end, I think I find myself not quite so indisposed as I was to this work. I think the previous difficulty lay largely in the expectation generated by the title. Had the work been otherwise named, some of the parts would, I suspect, have faired much better with me. The skills of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Marin Alsop must take much of the credit for this rehabilitation.
Having said this, I still think the star piece here is undoubtedly ‘The Light’ and the CD should be purchased for that alone. Whether or not you choose to find a place in your heart for Heroes Symphony, I leave for you to decide.