Einstein on the Beach

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Are you ready for some (more) Einstein?

What, you thought Philip Glass’s label was going to miss out on the chance to celebrate the opera’s first revival in New York in 20 years, this month at BAM? If so, think again.

To celebrate the revival, Orange Mountain Music has now added a third take on the opera for fans to consider alongside the two previously recorded versions. (Deep breath: the first recoding — a nervy, spiky and slightly truncated version — was issued on Tomato in the late 70s and then reissued by CBS in the 80s; the latter was a 90s-era effort on Nonesuch, which is complete but sometimes a bit soft-sounding.)

This previously unreleased recording hails from the 1984 revival at BAM. And it finds the Philip Glass Ensemble in ruthlessly good shape, and with the sonic production dynamics to match. The performances, newly mixed and edited, sound absolutely blistering: the Philip Glass Ensemble’s synth sound hasn’t yet been cleaned up to the extent that it would be on the Nonesuch recording. The low-end sound here, most prominent on “Train” and “Prematurely Air Conditioned Supermarket,” is probably worth the price of entry alone, thumping like no other version of Einstein on the market. (Other revelatory moments include the brittle, relentless punches of both Dances, the brisk choral workout on “Knee 3,” which is all the more high-wire-feeling for having been cut live, and, finally, the full ensemble’s powerful sound on “Spaceship.” 

On the CD edition, however, this live-in-‘84 recording is nothing close to complete: rather, it’s a (smartly) edited 77-minute highlight reel from the opera, paired with a DVD of the documentary produced by BAM during the same run (“The Changing Image of Opera”). The first obvious question is: who needs this specific package, exactly, even if it’s clear why Orange Mountain wouldn’t want to compete on price for a three-CD set with two bigger labels?

Despite the user-friendliness implied by the concision of a “highlights” disc, absolutely nobody should start with this recording of the opera. (Though it does happen to work well as a soundtrack for the gym, cutting as it does the majority of both “Trial” sections.) Meantime, hardcore fans — those who are into having more version of Einstein — will probably prefer a complete rendering. Thankfully, for those listeners, Orange Mountain Music will soon be offering a complete download of this ’84 recording on iTunes. (No documentary will be appended to that release, though.)

So: if the documentary is of interest to you — and it does make sense as a part of any Glass fan’s library — the physical-edition pairing here is the best-looking version of it you’ll find anywhere. And if you can’t imagine needing another three-hour version of Einstein but would like to hear how the band sounded back in the mid-80s, then you’re probably the ideal customer for that CD/DVD package.

But it’s hard for me to imagine an Einstein enthusiast who would thrill to the 77-minute edit of the ‘84 performance and not eventually trudge off to iTunes to get the full version. Einstein on the Beach may be a revolutionary opera that’s a quarter-century old, but at least it’s still resisting that utterly predictable path of making itself easily digestible at home.