GLASS: The Complete Piano Etudes – Maki Namekawa, piano – Orange Mt. Music (2 CDs)

PHILIP GLASS: The Complete Piano Etudes – Maki Namekawa, piano – Orange Mt. Music OMM0098, 124:28 (2 CDs) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] (11/25/14) ****:

I actually got to hear Phil Glass’ first set of etudes (what comprises only about half of the first ten) live in performance with the composer himself playing them, many years ago in Scottsdale. I am a long-time fan of Mr. Glass, having followed his music since the early 1970s and also – I am proud to say – having met him many times. He is by all accounts an affable, friendly man with a somewhat coy sense of humor and, no matter what some may think, a gifted musician with a unique vision and a trademark sound.

Glass began writing the Études in 1994, partly as a 50th birthday gift for the conductor and pianist and friend Dennis Russell Davies, but mainly because Mr. Glass was playing solo piano recitals, and wanted material that would challenge his technique. What was originally just five became a set of ten and, over ten years later, the work is considered complete at the present twenty.

Glass never even published sheet music for the first ten, keeping them to himself while releasing but one recording (with himself) of them. It wasn’t until Glass got around to the second set of ten that he apparently considered having someone other than him perform them. Pianist Maki Namekawa, the first musician to record the second set of etudes, is a formidable player with a gift for the inner sensitivity of these works. At this point, Glass himself would probably acknowledge that there are many pianists out there such as Namekawa who can actually play them technically better than he can.

In fact, by 2013, it is said that he had written the Etude No. 20 aware of the fact that he wouldn’t have to be the one performing it. There is an expected “sameness” that runs through the set of etudes but that has been said, unfairly in my mind, of much of Glass’ music. However, each piece has its own flavor and there is really plenty of variety to admire. For example, the first etude has much of the dramatic rumbling arpeggios in a minor key that characterizes a lot of his work. By contrast, Etude No. 20 is the longest of the set and is characterized by a lot of give and take with tempo and tone. In between these two ‘bookend’ etudes, many of them will remind you, understandably, of Glass’ films scores to The Hours or The Thin Blue Line. Each of them is attractive in its own way and there is enough variety of mode, tone and tempo to provide forward momentum when you listen to the whole set.

The performances all throughout this set are both pristine and sensitive to the style. Maki Namekawa seems keenly aware of the fact this is a Philip Glass album and this is music which does not get played with mannerisms and inflections as one might play Chopin or Schumann but, rather, there is a precision and virtuosity that must come through while still leaving room for some warmth and color. As an example, her playing of the later and more expansive etudes like Etude No. 16 is not “cold” or analytical at all. Namekawa does a terrific job of allowing the Glass style to not sound too “minimalist” (a term that Glass has said he really finds inadequate to describe his music). Thanks to her performances the inner sophistication and beauty of these little pieces comes through really well and I imagine that even people who know nothing about Philip Glass would enjoy this collection.

—Daniel Coombs

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