The following excerpt is from the session report for The Strad’s January 2022 issue “Focusing the Lens”. To read it in its entirety, click here to subscribe and log in. The January 2022 digital magazine and print edition are on sale now
The famous wall in front of Abbey Road Studios is particularly bright when the LGT Young Soloists come to record their Philip Glass album. Not only is the fresh coat of whitewash barely marked by the otherwise ever-blooming Beatles graffiti, but it’s also gloriously sunny summer days, a rarity for London in 2021.
However, the mixed feelings players might have about missing the sun aren’t evident inside Studio One as they get to work on the all-new Symphony (No. 14 for Strings, titled Liechtenstein) that Glass wrote to group it. For despite the blissful, easy-sounding opening of the symphony with which the second-day recording begins, it is a piece of contrasting technical features that must be executed with focus and attention to detail – and just as much in the darkest moments. quieter than in the fast passages of the final. The levels of concentration in the room are such that even though I’m just listening and not near an instrument, I still worry about ruining a take just thinking about playing a slightly out of tune arpeggio.
The group’s artistic director and concertmaster, Alexander Gilman, is clear that this is not music to be underestimated. He rejects with a firm ‘No!’ the “evil voices” that might claim, as he puts it, “it’s glass; you just go to the studio, pick up the sheet music and sight read it. In any case, his aspirations for interpretation go beyond accuracy. “Minimalist music is composed in a minimalist way, but I want to get the most out of it. I don’t just want to play simple, upright piano, I want to understand where we can build a big phrase, where we can make different sounds, bring out the bass, bring out the alto. This is the biggest challenge.
This approach, he says, requires careful preparation. ‘If you want to find that atmosphere – that sense beyond the world you look down to Earth – you have to think about not just what fingerings to use, but also bow speed, bow division, to bow pressure, how you develop bow speed – all those little things. Are you vibrating? Are you not vibrating? And then you need your fellow musicians to do the exact same thing. That’s a real goal in rehearsals – we mostly focus on having the same bow division and so on. That’s why it’s good that the musicians are not distracted by a conductor and that all eyes are ideally on me as leader or soloist.
Gilman’s preparation for the project included listening to Glass’ other symphonies – his first dates from 1992 and the premiere No. 15 is scheduled for premiere in March 2022. “I think this piece is not typical of Glass late. It has a kind of transparency, youth and joy. But when I spoke to him, I told him, if possible, that he tries to mold it to us. He told me that he had watched our videos and said, “I’ve always worked with young people and that’s exactly what I see in the videos – that joy, that energy. I love how he put this in the room. It is still a signature piece, still typical of Glass writing. But it’s quite different from his later works, especially the end.