Given that Koyaanisqatsi, Philip Glass's first collaboration with film director Godfrey Reggio, stands alongside Einstein on the Beach as one of those rare instances where experimental culture crosses over into popular consciousness without compromise, it's almost unfair to compare the film to its second "sequel," Naqoyqatsi.
Almost any feature is bound to pale at least a little by comparison. But in fact, Reggio's digitally warped visuals for Naqoyqatsi are sophisticated and disturbing, and Glass's orchestral score offers moments of outstanding lyricism from soloist Yo-Yo Ma.
But how does the score hold up without the film? Glass's Cello Concerto No. 2, a new release on the composer's Orange Mountain Music label, offers a chance to consider the material on its own merits.
Adapted from the Naqoyqatsi score and recorded here by contemporary music specialist Matt Haimovitz on cello, with faithful Philip Glass champion Dennis Russell Davies conducting the Cincinnati Symphony, Glass's Second gives us the chance to test the durability of the original material – which proves surprisingly durable.
Or perhaps not so surprisingly. After all, Glass's Second Violin Concerto, cloyingly nicknamed "The American Four Seasons," is another of his most delightful recent works. The fact is that concerto form agrees with Philip Glass's late style, which makes room for solo virtuosity and some exquisitely lyrical melodic writing. It also distracts from Glass's limited palette as an orchestrator, by giving him the chance to counterpose his monolithic ensemble writing against the high-flying solo part.
Whatever the reason, this dark score gives us Glass's late style at its best. Weird melodic modes kink around sharp harmonic corners; the solo cello gets moments of unsettling loveliness and spectacular virtuosity. In contrast to the statelier treatment on the original film soundtrack, this second look at Naqoyqatsi gives Haimovitz and Davies the chance to sand some varnish off of the piece with shrieks from the cello and full-throated blasts from the orchestra.
It's a second look most classic film scores don't get, but one which the piece richly deserves.
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