From Iceland — Harpa Hypnotised by Philip Glass

Harpa Hypnotised by Philip Glass

Published January 17, 2014

Philip Glass Études

Harpa Hypnotised by Philip Glass
Photo by
Hörður Sveinsson

Philip Glass Études

An étude from the French for “study”, is a short, often highly challenging piece designed to expand the playing technique of a musician. This often involves an intentionally difficult mixture of techniques, sometimes including sharp swings in mood or tempo or mind-bending, finger-tangling times signatures. Over the years, many notable composers have written them, with the resulting works sometimes judged to have merit enough to be performed in repertoire.

This presentation of the Philip Glass études was the first time I’d heard of the form, but the idea of a great composer writing short pieces with a non-standard aim is an interesting proposition. For a start, music designed to stretch a performer will likely involve an entertaining display of technique, allowing an accomplished pianist to show an audience exactly “what they can do”—like a license to showboat. Then, the idea of pushing the possibilities of playing, without the pressure of declaring the composition a completed work, might yield interesting results—like a playground for ideas.

Glass has written twenty études over the last two decades, collected together here, and performed by Víkingur Heiðar Ólafsson, Maki Namekawa and Glass himself. Counted amongst the most popular living composers, his music is distinctive and unconventional whilst appealing to a large audience outside of the traditional classical crowd. As such, there it felt like the people in Harpa’s Eldborg hall collectively leaned forward and craned their necks to get a good look at the great man as he shuffled, stooped and humble, onto the stage.

Addressing the piano casually, with shoulders back, and moving little throughout, the opening piece hit a sombre note, employing some of his trademark flurries of notes, tumbling forth in tight patterns held within an atmospheric progression. The structure felt like something of an inquiry—a mapping out of territory within a predetermined framework, with small but noticeable variations showing how a melody might develop or deteriorate through imperfect repetition, not unlike a precise musical description of xerography.

The opening piece hit a sombre note, employing some of his trademark flurries of notes, tumbling forth in tight patterns held within an atmospheric progression.

The differing styles of the three pianists lay in stark contrast. Namekawa arrived with a charming flourish, striking the keys emphatically and bringing with her a bright, exuberant energy that saw her literally bouncing from the stool at times. When the rapid, swirling central motif of the piece slowed in the final moments, it was like the phrase became comprehensible in a new way; her face broke into a smile, like a magician happy to reveal her trick.

Víkingur Ólafsson took the stage with a scholarly air, and a welcome sense of theatre—he paused and looked into the audience for five solid seconds before suddenly starting to play, with one hand still resting in his lap. His finger work was sharp and technical, and he leaned into the keys, peering down like a surgeon into the rippling, eddying cascade of the piece. The crowd’s response upon the sudden, unexpected cut off point was thunderous.

The Phillip Glass études feel more like a masterclass than an exercise, offering a fascinating and at times dizzying range of tone, structure and dynamic variation, and the audience drifted out into the night beaming from the musical feast.

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