Along with his colleague John Adams, Philip Glass is the most familiar of the modern minimalists. Yet like Adams, Glass seems to be building a greater communicative sense with each new work I hear. These two symphonies were composed in the early nineties, and Naxos is now providing a 2003 recording of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra led by the insightful Marin Alsop. This is the same group of artists that played the wonderful version of Adams' "Shaker Loops" this past year, and this recording of Glass' works equals that one for dramatic insight and virtuosic preciseness.
A strings-only piece, Symphony #3 (23:58) has four conventional movements which build in drama and texture. It contains many of Glass' signature sounds with mono-tonal melodies that spiral in larger and larger circles and chords that feel like they are beating down an urban thunderstorm of clandestine activity - jabbing, throbbing, chugging - as they do in the second movement. Yet the music reflects some of his most gentle work especially in the first and third movements. There is an unexpectedly beautiful violin solo in the middle of the third movement that runs initially counter to his quietly driving sequential style until they eventually meld together. The drama turns fiery in the last movement as it broadens into an exciting albeit measured gallop, at the same time not sacrificing the virtuosity of the expert playing by the Bournemouth string section.
Symphony #2 (43:14) is a larger scale piece that makes dramatic sense to be played after the third, as it is a more ambitious work. It slowly builds in intensity with very broad strokes that deepen and darken when it comes to the bass-lines and the repetitive use of contrasting woodwinds. There is a vividly harrowing sense of adventure to the first movement that this section would not be inappropriate to be used as background movie music for a daring escape aboard a hot air balloon crossing the Alps. There is more of an orchestral sense to the second movement and an increasing ambiguity in tone that heightens the drama considerably with yet a new set of pronounced textures. The finale has almost a battle-cry exuberance but with a swooping, sinuous dramatic power with the addition of brass and even bells to the strings and woodwinds. The last movement truly feels like the culmination of what Glass has presented before in both symphonies.
Beautifully recorded at "The Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Poole" in Dorset, UK, this recording verifies that Glass' oeuvre is more than his famous operas often in collaboration with Robert Wilson. Producer-engineer Tim Handley has done an excellent job of keeping the impeccable sound in check throughout. And like the Adams recording, this one sells for the ridiculously bargain basement price of $6.98. Strongly recommended.