Top positive review
Worth the (decade-long) wait
Reviewed in the United States on December 6, 2014
When I saw this album I was ecstatic to find that Philip Glass had doubled his oeuvre of etudes for piano. I love the music and was quite taken by his own recording of the first set a decade or so ago. Glass is not a virtuoso pianist and it sometimes showed in his own performances, but he played so with such passion that it was almost like listening to Alfred Cortot or Arthur Schnabel, with their poetic insights shining through despite technical flubs. Etudes 5 and 6 especially shone as the emotional heart of the set, the former plaintive and wistful, the latter contrastingly tense, dramatic, pulsing. These were the first etudes i listened to on this new recording, to see how Maki Namekawa compares in her approach to this music.
Unfortunately, while I was impressed by her technique over Glass' own, her interpretations fell a little short for me in these pieces. Her fifth is much slower and a bit quieter, at points so much so that it almost falls apart. The intensity in Glass' playing is gone in favor of a more pensive and somber atmosphere. Etude six also varies greatly between artists. Glass' take is dramatic, intense, and played with looser tempo. Namekawa plays the repeated notes without pedal, producing a drier, more precise and toccata-like sound. I will commend her on the clarity and the greater difference between loud and soft that she achieves, which are superior to the composer's own playing. That said, I still prefer Glass himself here. Looking elsewhere in the set, however, I find places where Namekawa shines. I prefer her more dreamlike atmosphere in the second etude and her more noble and articulated eighth etude.
The second set of etudes has no standard for comparison on record and I find myself more able to listen more for the music than the interpretation. Etude 1 opens the set confidently with some thunderous turbulence, etude 2 brings us familiar Glassian arpeggios over a motoric, syncopated bass that at one point sounds like Khachaturian's Sabre Dance is about to let loose. Scales are the name of the game in number 3, ascending thunderously in the left hand, crashing down in the right, all interspersed with lighter toccata-like broken chords. The fourth etude is the first of the set to exhibit a subdued, nocturne-like character, almost Chopinesque. Number 5 erupts sonorously and remains forte throughout with unbroken chords in the right hand, the height of grandeur. The sixth is more delicate with pearly figurations in the right hand over the repeating patterns of the left, building gradually to its chordal climax. The set continues to impress, until the final etude. As I listened to this mysterious piece, I was astonished by how un-Glassian it sounded, as if I had listened past the end of the album into another from a different composer. Gradually in the latter half we hear moments of Glass' trademark repeated broken chords, but again they vanish. The mood is introspective and contemplative, a Scriabin-esque sognando atmosphere. I must admit that I'm generally puzzled by the piece but nevertheless find it to be perhaps the most gripping of the set.
Overall I am very pleased with this set. In the first set I prefer Glass more often than not. However, I do not regret that Namekawa rather than the composer himself was the first to record the second set. For the most part the second set is more difficult technically and I'm not sure Glass' somewhat less refined technique would have been up to the task for some etudes, especially at the age of 77. The more complex nature of the second set also lends itself more to Namekawa's impeccable clarity. She is not the emotionless drone the some others accuse her of being; rather, she is just a bit more restrained and precise -- which works better in some places. I hope more pianists eventually record these etudes so that we can hear more combinations of player temperament with the music, but for now I find this recording to be a completely worthwhile foray into this new repertoire.