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Valentia Lisitsa Suspends Time On New Album Of Glassworks

Courtesy photo

NOTE: I have never felt the need to preface a music review until now, but there's a first time for everything. Valentina Lisitsa has recently been criticized for what some have described as 'hate speech' in her Twitter feed. A native of Kiev, Lisitsa is vocal in her opinions about the conflict in Ukraine. Lisitsa's Tweets are often blunt and inelegant. Read for yourself and make up your own mind about her as a political activist. For the music, read below.

Since the late 1960s, accusations of writing overly simplistic music have dogged composer Philip Glass. (It's still an unfair criticism. No one seems to complain about Erik Satie's Gymnopedies.) Glass's early experiments with sound blocks and repeated patterns, performed by a small amplified ensemble, gradually gave way in the 1980s to larger symphonic works, including operas and concerti, as the composer began using solo voices and instruments to sing over subtly shifting harmonic structures.

From the 1990s on, Glass’s pen has continually brought forth a stream of music for stage, screen, and the concert hall. His detractors may continue to criticize the repeated arpeggios and song structures that mimic that of popular music as monotonous or robotic, but on her new release of Glass music, pianist Valentina Lisitsa brings out the romantic side of the composer's music.

Glass’s solo piano works, often focusing on the tension and release of minor chords that give way to a major key resolution, are gently caressed by Lisitsa, who begins the album with Opening from Glassworks (1982). Glass’s original recording is notable for its crispness and steady pulse. But with this, as with her performance of 1988’s Metamorphosis (also available in a recording by Glass himself), Lisitsa adjusts the tempo and dynamics, building drama into each four, eight, or 16-bar pattern with a gradual slowing or a slight rise in volume.

There are nine selections on this two-disc set from Glass’s film score for The Hours. I wasn’t a big fan of the film, and while the music perfectly frames the melancholy mood of the picture, I’m happy to say it stands alone outside of the movie, the perfect soundtrack to your afternoon of existential angst. Morning Passages remains a favorite cue, a melody formed from a slow, stop-start rhythm. That sense of suspended time is part of what makes Glass’s music so hypnotic.

The other element is the element of repetition. Glass, a Buddhist and therefore no stranger to the transformational power of chant, uses this common element to the extreme in the early work How Now (1968), a rare performance of which is captured here by Lisitsa. The work begins with a five-note pattern, adds a sixth some 45 seconds later, and continues to play mathematical and musical tricks for nearly half an hour. It’s maddening for a few minutes, but if you let yourself go, it’s also a pure bliss-out.

The most surprising track on Valentina Lisitsa plays Philip Glass is Lisitsa’s performance of Mad Rush, written in 1979 for a stateside appearance by the Dalai Lama. The music alternates between ear-tickling triplets-on-duplet sections and positively explosive two-handed 16th note arpeggios. Lisitsa really puts some muscle and speed behind those sections.

Even as much of a fan as I am of Glass’s music, I’ll admit that two discs worth of solo piano is probably too much to listen to at once. In large doses, there’s a sameness to some of the works on this set, which reveals that the same musical trademarks fans like me admire Glass for can also be a shortcoming. But even though Glass has already recorded much of this music himself on previous releases, Lisitsa demonstrates there is still room for new discoveries in Glass’s most intimate setting, solo piano.

Nathan has been with TPR since 1995, when he began working on classical music station KPAC 88.3 FM, as host of “Tuesday Night at the Opera.” He soon learned the ropes on KSTX 89.1 FM, and volunteered to work practically any shift that came his way, on either station. He worked in nearly every capacity on the radio before moving into Community Engagement, Marketing, and Digital Media. His reporting and criticism has been honored by the Houston Press Club and Texas Associated Press.