Philip Glass (b. 1937)
The Complete Piano Études
Maciej Gański (piano)
rec. 2021, Concert Hall of the Stanisław Moniuszko Academy of Music, Gdansk, Poland
DUX 1963/64 [2 CDs: 125]

This is a somewhat surprising release from the Polish Dux label. Granted, pianist Maciej Gański is Polish, but the majority of releases from the label are of Polish composers as well as artists. Gański is by no means a well-known name, but his biography indicates a significant number of performances in a relatively short career.

The twenty études written by Philip Glass across two decades are possibly his most recorded works (though I admit that I haven’t checked this). I first encountered them in the last couple of years, through the wondrous recital on DG by Víkingur Ólafsson (review). Since then, I have accumulated quite a collection of recordings: this is the seventh complete set, with several others including selections.

Glass wrote the first ten (called Book 1) partly with the intention of improving his own technique, whereas the ten of Book 2 were conceived individually, and with the best pianists in mind. I don’t intend to analyse the performance of each – that would test everyone’s patience, so I will limit my comments to a few favourites and a couple that stand out as unusual decisions by Gański.

The most strikingly different interpretation is that of No. 5. Gański takes it incredibly slowly, spending more than eleven minutes. The majority of versions I have cluster around eight minutes, and Philip Glass’s own takes under six. Nicolas Horvath on Grand Piano takes no more than 4:15, but he doesn’t sound that much faster, so I assume there are repeats that have been omitted. The closest to Gański that I can find among my collection is Jeroen van Veen on Brilliant Classics at 9:49. Does this glacial pace work? It is quite hypnotic (and Glass should be), and wonderfully controlled, but even this aficionado couldn’t maintain full attention for the whole time, so I think my answer has to be no. Gański is similarly slower than most in No. 7, though here van Veen is another three minutes longer again (14:40 compared with Gański’s 11:56).

This doesn’t mean that his tempos are always slow. The duration of the whole set (125 minutes) is almost the same as Maki Namekawa, who recorded the first full set of the Études for Glass’s own label, Orange Mountain Music. Jeroen van Veen and Sally Whitwell (ABC) are in excess of 140 minutes.

My touchstone for the set is No. 6, which I have seen described as Lisztian, presumably because of the moments of high drama and pounding fortissimos. No one comes within shouting distance of Ólafsson’s extraordinary version, which really does conjure up the spirit of Liszt with volcanic surges of power (Icelandic reference intended). However, Maciej Gański is certainly up there with any others I’ve heard. He uses less soft pedal than Ólafsson, so the sound is more hard-edged, not inappropriate for this music, but he can’t match the Icelander’s power.

The first recording of the mysterious and ethereal final Étude, by Maki Namekawa, has not been bettered by anyone, even Ólafsson. It is the longest of the twenty: everyone, other than the no-repeats Horvath, takes more than ten minutes, and maintaining a sense of progress is quite a challenge. Here Gański is good, though not outstanding.

His two highlights are No. 2, which is quite stunning, up there with Ólafsson’s (not something I thought I would ever write), and No. 18, which has very much a feel of the early Glass in its driving rhythms – Gański does it to perfection.

The booklet is frankly a waste of paper. The notes (in Polish and English) comprise a one-page biography of Gański (taken directly from his university page), half a page on the history of the étude, another half a page on an outline of Glass’s career and ten unilluminating lines of rumination on the works as a whole. The majority of the booklet is given over to moody black and white photographs of forests and towns, and a totally pointless one (in colour) of a light bulb with a label reading “Fragile – Glass Frame”. The cover depicts Gański with some sort of optical device over the right side of his face: are we supposed to think that he (or the music) is partly robotic? It is best ignored, as it does a disservice to the fine performances.

Critics of Glass’s music say that it has no depth, but the Études, and the myriad of ways that they have been played, refute this. Maciej Gański gives us another intriguing view of them; yes, there are a couple of decisions which didn’t quite work, but equally there are some outstanding moments.

David Barker

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