Philip Glass – Piano Works. Víkingur Ólafsson — Deutsche Grammophon 479-6918 (7/28/17) 79:39  ****1/2

The role of “composer” changes over the course of musical history, especially so in the Western tradition. Whether we look at Bach, or Mozart, or Beethoven as the example, those composers were very active performers. What we sometimes think of the composer’s art, putting notes down on manuscript paper, was very much the second act. If we take the piano sonata as an example, what’s composed? The sound coming from the instrument under Mozart’s fingers, or the transcription of those notes arranged on 10 lines of staff paper for notes performed across two hands?

I have always thought of Philip Glass, for whom this album was prepared in celebration of his eightieth birthday, as a composer in the style of an old-school musician like a Mozart or Beethoven. His Etudesfor piano—first a collection of ten—then of twenty—were meant for his own performance. In fact, he wrote them to help him improve his technique. Like a Mozart, Glass does compose music, on paper, for other musicians to perform. And Víkingur Ólafsson has risen to the challenge. But in auditioning this release from Deutsche Grammophon, I couldn’t ignore that the Glass Etudes (or even his Glassmusic) were pieces created with the composer himself envisioned at the keyboard. 

The first ten Etudes were released in 2003 by the composer as “Volume 1” (Orange Mountain). Glass’s music, made up of repetitive cells that present, many times, the progressions of interesting harmonic sequences that really wouldn’t have been foreign to Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven, lends itself to appreciation in a state of perfection: think of a computerized MIDI file where each pitch is presented in perfect time, with similar pressure applied to each note. In the hands of a human being—Glass included—that perfection of repetitive gestures loses its perfection, leaving something very human and organic behind. It is the parallel I often reference when seeing a sand mandala being constructed by monks: not the finished product, but the sight right as it is being destroyed, a few colors blurred, the very geometric designs starting to become smeared. That is very much the feeling I had when listening to Glass’s own recording of the first ten etudes. Glass is not a concert pianist, by international standards, but I have to wonder if his own technique in playing these pieces is precisely how he hears them when he puts notes to a page.

The pianist Maki Namekawa also recorded the etudes—all twenty—for Glass and it was released in 2014 (Orange Mountain). I had enjoyed the release—not only for the doubling of music—but the increase pianism that Namekawa brought to the Etudes. Now we could hear at least some of the pieces through a different interpreter—but one that has presumably worked very closely with the composer. 

Ólafsson too has an association with composer Philip Glass. This is the Icelandic pianist’s debut album with DG. He has toured with Glass, having performed the Etudes ([read more about his background at DG’s website](Vikingur Ólafsson  – Artist Page on Deutsche Grammophon). In this release he presents ten of the piano etudes (number 2 presented twice, with an arrangement for piano with strings) across the two collections, in addition to an “opening” arrangement from Glass’s much earlier, and popular piece, Glassworks. The album concludes with a further arrangement of the same piece, combined with strings from Siggi String Quartet.

The opening track of the album is one of the most interesting: the interlocking rhythms of the opening from Glassworks has that organic feel I recognized from Glass’s reading of his Etudes, but this version is uber-organic. At first listen I questioned if the piece had been recorded in two takes? The liner notes do not reveal an answer, but if played in one take, the piece demonstrates Ólafsson’s extreme independence of hands and enviable technical abilities. The last track, reworked by Christian Badzura, isn’t exactly Glassian. The piece nevertheless maintains a new age vibe, using Glassian techniques of repetition with motive and harmony. Then, almost at the midpoint, after the purer themes from Glassworks appear, the piece resets, now far more familiar to us. I do question the necessity to “arrange” music by a living composer when presenting his work to an audience—perhaps for the first time—but on repeated listenings I enjoyed the piece. And it’s exactly the type of thing that helps frame the etudes as a concert experience (think of the Aria that opens and closes Bach’s Goldberg Variations). The arrangement is a real gift to the composer, offering something familiar, but new.

But what about the Etudes? The piano’s sound and dynamic range is best captured in this new album comparing it to the other albums I referenced earlier. With that, Ólafsson’s technique and interpretations are the more pianistic and dynamic ones yet. He treats each Etude as its own sound world, going further than Glass did with a gentle technique, especially so in the reading of Etude 2. Ólafsson’s technical range is on full display in the next track, Etude 6. Using broad strokes of dynamic contrast between sections, extreme control and dynamic variance on a repeated-note theme, and beautifully-controlled crescendos, he elevates Glass’s music beyond the technical reach of the composer. To a similar degree, Glass’s third etude also shines with the gravitas of an excellent-sounding piano and Ólafsson’s technical gifts.

Already familiar with Glass’s etudes, I enjoyed hearing their transformation into polished works of art in the performance by Víkingur Ólafsson. Listening to Glass playing himself, in contrast, is a humble presentation of interesting musical material where I shall always desire to return. Namekawa’s presentation of all twenty Etudesmay be a better reference recording, given her tighter pianistic skills and the presentation of all twenty pieces. I am very envious to know of what Glass has thought of Ólafsson’s interpretations—for they go further, with what I sense are each very personal interpretations in each track. He is not playing slave to what the composer himself already has recorded, but is instead un-earthing new potential in these pieces. They go as far as is possible, I believe, from coming across as “MIDI files.” And for those on the fence with Glass’s compositional style, this recording may just win over new converts to one of America’s most celebrated living composers. 

—Sebastian Herrera.