PHILIP GLASS: Symphony No. 1 “Low” – Sinfonieorchester Basel/Dennis Russell Davies – Orange Mountain OMM0095, 46:46 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] (5/06/14) ***1/2:
Philip Glass’s Symphony No.1 was an “early” work in the sense that it was one of his first successful forays into symphonic writing in the true sense. The Symphony No.1 predates all formal construction of Glass’s now numerous symphonies as well as his concertos.
This piece remains an important work in the expansive Glass oeuvre. It stands as an excellent example of his now neo-Romantic, minimalism-inspired style that defines his work. It is, also, however, a bit of a testament piece to the rock musicians and late sixties “cutting edge” scene that Glass was always a de facto member of.
Glass took a few of the main themes from the “Low” album by David Bowie and Brian Eno and built upon them to create themes and phrases of his own. I am not personally familiar with the “Low” album. I never followed David Bowie much although I am much more familiar with some of the ambient albums of Brian Eno. So, I cannot address the effectiveness of Glass’s treatment of melodies from that work. I have, however, read a number of reviews of the “Low” Symphony that declare it to be one of the very best symphonic adaptations of what is, basically, a rock album. I’ll take that as I like the piece very much.
I have the original recording of this work, from 1993, with conductor Dennis Russell Davies and the Brooklyn Philharmonic. Davies has been a long time promoter of Glass’s music and I have seen him conduct his works live on several occasions. He really does understand the style and can bring out all the subtleties in some of the composer’s less “bombastic” works; of which the Symphony No.1 is one.
It is not an especially long or “powerful” work (by contrast with the Symphony No. 5, for example.) It is, in fact, rather restful throughout. I am particular fond of the second movement, Some Are. Only in the finale, Warszawa, do things have some of the characteristic propulsion that we are familiar with.
I only recently learned that much of the original Brooklyn Philharmonic recording was done in studio with sections of the orchestra performing against a click track and Davies’ guidance. There were even sections of the middle movement, Some Are, which were added later. (There is a Rykodisc recording of the David Bowie album that, apparently, included Some Are as a bonus track to his original album that, clearly, impressed Glass enough to use in his work.)
I have no quibble with the original Brooklyn recording of this work (Decca Classics/Phillips 0289 438 1502 4.) However, I must say, that Davies decision to re-record the piece with the Sinfonieorchester Basel, Switzerland, is a good one. This new recording has lots of presence and even a bit more “drive” to it (perhaps in Davies re-examination of the work.) I do recommend this a lot, especially for fans of Philip Glass. I see that Davies has recently recorded a new rendition of Glass’s Symphony No. 4, that I am anxious to investigate.