Glass’ 11th Symphony A Rollicking Ride

Review by: Robert Levine


Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

Critics and fans alike like to say that Philip Glass composes music that is either riveting or dull. Whatever, count this new symphony among the great successes. It is both fascinating and rollicking fun. It’s in three movements of 10, 15, and 11 minutes. Remove the arpeggios and the first is reminiscent of, of all people, Bruckner, with big blocks of conversation between bass trombone, tuba, and string choirs. The little changes and piling up of rhythms, his usual rising and falling melodies with prominent percussion (naturally recorded), and shifts in harmony stir up the movement. And a sudden, comforting shift to pianissimo helps the listener into the serene start of the second movement.

Dominated by strings, the beautifully reflective opening eases into a quicker, cha-cha-cha section, the arpeggios back and racing, animated and exciting but never breakneck. Violins and flutes sing a melody above the churning lower tunes going wickedly from major to minor, and then a restful period returns, with mystery–but not for long: a headlong fortissimo race winds up in a calm melody from “Satyagraha” briefly before a lolling, quite section returns us to familiar arpeggios and the breathiness of the low strings.

Snare drum and then a true drum corps ushers in a most bizarre opening to the last movement. Soon joined by bass tuba, full strings, and glockenspiel, a melody tries to break out but keeps getting interrupted. Textures are plush, rhythms propel (what a percussion section!), animated climax after climax won’t resolve, and the symphony becomes sheer festive chaos, an insane dance that’s always on the verge of falling off a cliff but thanks to the composer’s wisdom and wit, never does. The ending, flutes blazing, drums snaring, brass yelling, rhythm jerking, is a thrill a minute. How will he end it? Will it explode? Will there be release and resolution?

Surprise after surprise, this is an absolute winner; the joy of composing has come to Mr. Glass, and as ever, Dennis Russell Davies leads it and the thoroughly-ready Linz players with absolute security and understanding. Wow.

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Recording Details:

    Bruckner Orchestra Linz, Dennis Russell Davies

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