A Rare Chance to Hear All of Philip Glass’s Piano Etudes

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Glass, The Etudes Philip Glass, Timo Andres, Claire Hammond, Maki Namekawa, Víkingur Ólafsson (pianos). Barbican Hall, London, 29.4.2015 (CC)

This was a great opportunity to hear Glass’ twenty Etudes in one concert, spread between five pianists (one of which was the composer himself). The Etudes were begun in 1994, but only completed in 2013. (The Perth International Festival commissioned Nos. 18-20 in 2012 in honour of the composer’s 75th birthday).

In an interview reprinted in the programme for a complete performance of these Etudes in Davies Symphony Hall on March 2, 2015 (on that occasion performed by three out of the present four pianists – Claire Hammond was the omission), Glass stated that “the point of the Etudes, originally, was to strengthen my piano playing”. He is referring here to the first ten, written in the 1990’s through to 2001. The second set dates from 2004 to the present. Given that there is a pedagogical aspect to the first ten at least and that they come from the hand of a major composer, that would seem to imply that we are in the grand tradition of Etudes from the Masters (Chopin, Debussy and Ligeti of course immediately spring to mind). And indeed, that thought did crop up regularly.

There is also implicit in Glass’ statement that his piano playing was in need of strengthening. There is certainly an important aspect of composers playing their own pieces, but it has to be said that the Etudes played by Glass himself were by some margin the weakest. Glass played the first two, the first seeming to point towards Chopin (Op. 25/1, perhaps), while the second veered far more towards Debussy. But wherever they may point, there was a continuous feeling that the delivery was there by the skin of its teeth, something confirmed by Glass’ contributions to the second half (Nos. 16 and 17). Although No. 16 was beautifully improvisatory in effect and absolutely charming, No. 17 seemed on the brink of collapse on a number of occasions.

The contrast between Glass the pianist and his chosen interpreters was stark. One felt safer immediately when the young British pianist, Claire Hammond took the stage, in the first half, for Nos. 3 and 4. Her sound was deeper, and her playing immaculately clean. She also seemed to go straight to the heart of the Third Etude (dramatic and slightly manic), before underlining the Chopinesque dark clouds of No. 4.

Icelandic pianist Víkingur Ólafsson provided the real highlights of the evening. His account of No. 5 (over eight minutes long) would surely melt the stoniest of hearts; No. 6 is what many might consider “pure” Glass, with its insistent chuggings and its slowly shifting kaleidoscopic effects, beautifully managed here by Ólafsson. As that particular Etude expands, though, it takes on a Lisztian breadth and import. Ólafsson proved he is capable of wit, also, in No. 13.

Possibly Maki Namekawa was the most experienced of the pianists involved. The way she began No. 8, taking it from pure study into the realms of the most human emotions in next to a heartbeat was magical, while No. 7 found her making the most fragile of piano sounds of the evening. The final pianist of the evening was Timo Andres (who looks for all the world like a Finnish version of Roger Vignoles). His playing is remarkably nuanced, as his account of No. 9 proved, and his approach a tad more fluid and rubato-prone than his peers. For No. 15, he used an iPad to read the music but sounded not for a second score-bound, evoking organ-like sonorities one might expect from a Bach/Busoni piano transcription.

It actually fell to Namekawa to finish off the evening with the final two Etudes, and surely Glass could not have asked for better. Her sound is positively gorgeous, and in No. 19 she evinced not only a sound grasp of the piece’s shape but also a stunning evenness of texture. The mysterious opening of the final Etude was magnificent, as was its sense of growth (you can see Namekawa on YouTube in this Etude).

The inspired aspect of the programming was actually the contrasts between the pianists themselves, a testament of how adaptable the music itself is to differing approaches. An intriguing aspect of this method of presenting the sequence with multiple soloists was the stage management, with different piano stools for each pianist, which seemed to be identified by coloured strips around the legs.

laire Hammond has recorded a disc entitled simply “Etude” for the Swedish BIS label, encompassing works by Kapustin, Ligeti, Lyapounov and Szymanowski, a programme which on the present evidence plays to her strengths.



Colin Clarke