Composer-performers were all the rage in nineteenth century Europe. Liszt wowed big crowds with his miraculous technique, and so did Chopin, but the less flashy piano concert tours of Brahms and Clara Schumann were big draws plus their bread and butter jobs. Still our obsession with “holy German art” has tended to make us mistake the forest for the trees. Enter Philip Glass who began his professional life as a performing composer because no one else would play his work live. And now this seminal and deeply influential composer is in the enviable position of playing his piano etudes with composer-performers from all over the world. American-born Sarah Cahill, Aaron Diehl, Taiwan-born US-based Jenny Lin ,and Russian-born Anton Batagov. It doesn’t matter that they’re much younger than Glass .who turns eighty January 31 2017, but that they have the chops to make his music come alive.
That music has seldom been easy, for his listeners perhaps, but not for his performers who must master its technical difficulties to make it sound as if I were sitting next to you, and you were sitting next to me, with no wall between. “Intimacy” is a loaded and conventional “romantic” term, but intimacy is what this two-book 20 piece 1991-20012 set is all about. Debussy’s 12 Piano Etudes ( 1915 ) are landmarks in his late work, but as in most things French their devotion to tradition wants to wall off anything really new because it must play according to pre-scripted rules. Glass’ Etudes are both “traditional ” and polite but go their separate ways in his own individual or should we say independent way, and his interpreters have to choose what kinds of attacks,colors, and of course tempos will serve each of the four etudes they played.
Take, for example, Etude # 16 , in 7/8 met. 92, which the celebrated Russian composer-pianist Anton Batagov took at a much less rapid but equally compelling clip than the Japanese pianist Maki Namekawa in her Orange Mountain Music double-CD set of the complete Etudes — partial on www.youtube.com — and — the huge “piu mosso” –met. 96 change in figure 9 forte but still 3+ 4 means that the rhythm is the same but not what it is. Berkeley-based new music champion Sarah Cahill was both respectful and tentative in her under tempo met. 76 account of Etude # 5 which, with its smudged yet completely exposed harmonies, is perhaps the most elusive and difficult piece in the set. Her performance of the subsequent almost twice as fast # 6 had her on much firmer ground, and her take on # 11 and # 12 in Book Two, though also under tempo, were more confident, and relaxed, which is I think what most everyone misses in Glass. It’s not about beating the listener into submission but saying this is how it should be, and the pianists here made this music sound inevitable and — necessary.
Diehl’s performances of #3, # 4, # 15, and # 16 were both off hand and incisive, his sense of color acute, his technique fluid. Glass’ performances of # 1 , #2 , # 17, and #18, though not virtuosic, were authentic and had the calm but excitable quality so central to the man and his work. And though Lin’s readings of # 7 and # 8 sounded a bit loose, she seemed to really hit her stride in # 19 and # 20, which couldn’t be more different . Glass has sequenced each etude so that they abut reflect, and augment each other in terms of color, weight, and emotional tone, and their affects – I’ve heard Glass play some of them at Saratoga’s Villa Montalvo, San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and at its Davies Symphony Hall — seem to change the way we do in time — that was me then, and this is me now, and the constantly shifting densities in his etudes, aligned with these elusive facts. Lin’s performance of # 20 seemed to take her by surprise, and the stunned silence which greeted her as the last note sounded — a half note “c” pianissimo — hung in space — as the audience held its breath and came to, and responded with steady and completely deserved applause.