Violin Concerto No. 2 “The American Four Seasons”
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Robert McDuffie Violin
reviewed by Tom-Tom
To begin with, Philip Glass is an American composer whose style could be characterized as being of the “minimalist” school. This can mean anything from spare instrumentation to an absolute absence of complicated chords. For Glass, it usually means, he repeats the same 5 chords over and over again in a “La Folia” type way. This can be and has been used to great effect in his other works such as the soundtrack for the film “Mishima” and in at least the first movement of his first Violin Concerto.
Glass’ canvas here is broader spanning what he has labeled as The American Four Seasons, a “companion piece” to Vivaldi’s famous work of Violin Concerti also for strings here. Apparently, (according to the CD Leaflet anyway), Glass and the Violinist to whom he dedicated the piece had differing opinions about which musical work depicting which season so the composer decided to leave it up in the air as to which is which and let the listening audience decide. I personally can’t. Some sound like a lonely late November afternoon to me. Each movement has a cadenza-like violin introduction at the height of which the next movement begins.
The first intro cadenza titled Prologue begins with a mobile and legato bird-like warbling of the violin. Certain passages recall the bird calls of Vivaldi’s Summer. The strings enter starting off Movement I and the piece takes on a stormy nature with the ripieno and violin trading off the theme always with a mobile wavering of strings in the background when they’re not keeping the constant rhythm common to many of the works of Glass with pizzicato. The violin melody is bombastic as the storm slowly builds passing through the Glass 5 chords. The instruments that end the piece with the violin echoing the Movement’s first chords are a synthesizer and probably the contrabassi and celli.
The second cadenza begins titled “Song no. 1” which, by name, at least, is connected to Movement I. In tone and pace, it couldn’t be more distant. It is a lonely set of arpeggio-like whimpers which continues in both timbre and flavor into Movement II. This is a very sorrowful piece but hauntingly beautiful thanks in part to the descending and ascending scales played in alternating eighth note octaves by the violin. This is succeeded by a repeating syncopated rhythm by the ripieno strings which cycles merrily through 5 more Glass chords underneath a series of repeating arpeggios and scales by the violin. It has a reassuring and overcoming-the-sorrow-of-the -earlier-melody effect. Said melody returns in the violin but this time without the octave jumping scales. The ripieno violins mirror the lead’s arpeggios layering upon the syncopated lower strings to great effect. The Movement ends with a languishing lonely melody reminiscent of the Song no. 1 Theme but characteristic of the opening theme of this movement with the lower strings carrying the wavering theme so common in Glass’ works cycling through the 5 Glass chords.
The third cadenza is more Bach-like than Vivaldi echoing the opening to the Sonata in g minor for unaccompanied violin at first until coming to rest on a sustained note on the A or D strings fiddling between a couple lower notes before coming back to the sustained note. Movement III begins with a quick staccato basso continuo joined soon by smoothly syncopated strings above them. The violin joins in another arpeggio side note here and there before entering full throttle with a double-stop heavy melody alternating with rapid fire scales and arpeggios. There is a bit too much repetition for the piece’s own good and plenty of the Glass 5 chords revisited. The mysterious contrabass/synthesizer makes another appearance after which the violin rehashes the double-stop melody but in finale fashion. If the piece had ended there, all of the themes would have appeared to come full circle in completion. Movementt III does not indeed end there and more rehashing and juggling of the melodies between lead violin and ripieno continues until yet another contrabass/celli playing alternating eighth note octaves to accompany the Glass chords calm everyone down for the final cadenza.
Song no.3 seems to echo Bach again in the slow portions reminiscing the d minor Partita for unaccompanied violin equal in reflective somberness. The happy contrabass and synthesizer come back in full effect with violi giving parting strokes above the dark sea. The synthesizer set for harpsichord and strings, I guess, playing in alteration with the violin whose 32nd (fast anyway) note flurries are high paced and furious this time cutting through the Glass chords until the eighth note double stops brazenedly rehash the melody. The synthesizer sometimes contributes dissonance added to by lower strings playing tightknit notes. This is all quelled by, you guessed it, lower string playing alternating octave eighth notes after which the poor violinist has to do those 32nd note arpeggio runs all over again. Finally, he gets the chance to play his double-stop heavy main melody but too much repetition has already worn the audience down (or at least this listener) to where the subsequent acrobatics by the no doubt exhausted violinist are just numbly listened until a descending scale lets the violin perform one more flourish just to have the piece end by a slightly out of tune ending note by the synthesizer.
Watching this piece live would probably be quite a treat just to see the violinist jump through the same hoops over and over again and see the contrabassi bows work those octave passages trying to keep track of which measure they’re currently hacking. Despite the slightly overdone 3rd and 4th movements, the cadenzas are all fine works and I agree with Glass that they themselves are concert worthy although their ends inexorably lead to the subsequent movements both tonally and melodically. I don’t know if it is a companion piece to Vivaldi past the first two movements nor do they evoke any sense of season unless three of those seasons were nothing but stormy whirlwinds. The piece does draw the listener in to the very end despite the repetition, it is a much more satisfying piece in its entirety than Glass’ Violin Concerto which has a great First Movement but rather repetitive Second and Third Movements.