Philip Glass

The Complete Piano Etudes

by John Garratt

12 December 2014

Philip Glass' collection of 20 etudes, written over a span of 19 years, is given a moving performance by the virtuosic pianist Maki Namekawa.
cover art

Philip Glass

The Complete Piano Etudes

(Orange Mountain Music)
US: 25 Nov 2014
UK: 25 Nov 2014

Subjectively speaking, some artists work better under pressure than others. Case in point: I’d much rather listen to piano exercises composed by Philip Glass designed to improve his technique than listen to his soundtrack for The Hours. Nobody made the minimalist composer write these 20 numerically titled etudes; instead, he took that initiative. He never even published sheet music for the first ten, keeping them to himself while releasing a lone recording of them. It wasn’t until Glass got around to the second set of ten that he considered having someone other than him perform them. This is where pianist Maki Namekawa, the first musician to record the second set of etudes, comes into the picture.. Together, these 20 etudes cover a 19-year arc in Glass’s composing career, a considerable stretch of time for a series of piano studies. This affords the composer a shift in attitude that keeps the music alive and listeners enrapt. The double-sided release of Philip Glass: The Complete Piano Etudes unleashes these 20 poignant miniatures. Fanfare is minimal, but praise is due nonetheless.

The formatting is a no-brainer: the first ten etudes go on the first disc and the second set of ten go on the second disc, giving you two solid hours of solo piano music. Orange Mountain Music gives The Complete Piano Etudes a low-frills packaging, giving only a quick biography of Namekawa, a photo of her performing, and two short essays by Glass in the disc sleeve. Of course, how can one be expected to analytically dissect a collection of etudes in a way that would interest the laity? About the most useful background one can give is that, back in 1994, Philip Glass decided to make himself a better piano player. However, by 2013, he had written the “Etude No. 20” free with the knowledge that he wouldn’t have to be the one performing it. “Etude 1” is a study in rapidly arpeggiating chords tracing themselves over a cinematically minor key figure. At 4:39, it is the second-shortest piece on The Complete Piano Etudes. “Etude 20”, at 10:25, is the longest and does not concern itself with right hand precision. It creeps and crawls its way to life through thick and sticky rubato, only to slowly sway high up in a leafless tree as the two hands perform a simple dance of give-and-take.

The musical themes of the first disc are aggressively sticky, pounding their way into your mind after just one or two listens. “Etude No. 2” could easily be sold to a film studio. “Etude No. 3” picks up on “Etude No. 1”‘s combination of spidery finger work within the heavily-imposing minor key. But Maki Namekawa knows that this isn’t all about her. Her performance of the earlier etudes have just as much warmth in them as they do virtuosity, a skill that helps make a good classical album an even better classical album. Her expansive readings of the later, more sprawling etudes like “Etude No. 16” don’t threaten to go clinical for even a second. Philip Glass may be a minimalist composer, but Namekawa is on top of how she feels about each piece. And that turns out to be the nice surprise: a collection of piano exercises written by a minimalist composer turns out to be a very moving listen. Film producers, take note.

The Complete Piano Etudes


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