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Pianist Vicky Chow, member of the Bang On A Can All-Stars ensemble, publishes “Philip Glass: Études for Solo Piano, Book 1” in Cantaloupe.

As part of the various tributes of all kinds that are taking place throughout 2022, on the occasion of the eighty-fifth birthday of the American composer Philip Glass, the Hong-Kong / Canadian pianist Vicky Chow has just released on the Cantaloupe Music label the album Philip Glass: Études for Solo Piano, Book 1, which brings together the first ten of the twenty “studies” for piano that Glass wrote between 1991 and 2012.

As can be read on the Philip Glass website, “The original six etudes were written for Dennis Russell Davies and Achyn Freyer on the occasion of Davies’ 50th birthday”. Glass then “composed an additional four for himself to expand his own piano technique, occasionally in response to individual commissions”. In short, the aim is to train the ability to play dynamics – ranging from pianississimo to fortissimo and all the gradations in between: mezzo forte, mezzo piano, piano, crescendo, forte, sforzando, ritardando, pianissimo, diminuendo…- and technical skills – from legato (by far the most used) to stacatto, passing through arpeggios, chords, triplets, chromatic scales, jazz rhythmic patterns or different techniques in each hand, ornaments such as trill, grupetto or mordente, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera-.

Numbers 1-10 belong to Book 1, which he began composing in 1991. Book 2, comprising numbers 11-20, was begun between 1992 and 1994 (he wrote six more Études which he added to the first ten) but was not completed until 2012, when they were premiered. For information purposes only, in the specific case of Book 1 of Études there is no pianissimo or pianississimo technique, and very little use of the retardando (only in Études 1 and 3).

Glass’s Études for piano have been recorded and performed (partially or in their entirety) by numerous pianists, from Glass himself to the accomplished Dutch specialist of minimalist repertoire Jeroen van Veen (who has made, for my taste, the best recording so far of the complete works), through Nico Muhly, Vanessa Wagner, Timo Andres, Víkingur Ólaffson (with a brilliant selection of thirteen Études in an album published by Deutsche Grammophon), Aaron Diehl (an accomplished jazz pianist, in an unsuspected change of register), Anton Batagov, Tania Leon, Sally Whitwell (beautiful in the slower études but a bit shallow with the faster numbers), Jacopo Salvatori, Jenny Lin (accompanied by excellent reviews of her live performances, even if the 2017 recording for Stenway & Sons is too spartan) or Bojan Gorišek. Nicolas Horvath also made a comprehensive, if occasionally maddeningly tempo-driven, rushing through some of the études at the expense of clarity. And the best known, so far, may be that of Maki Namekawa, favoured by his proximity to Glass.

Against all of these, Chow, the pianist from the Bang On A Can All-Stars ensemble, offers her own version, with a series of superbly controlled performances, balancing passion and precision to shape the oscillating patterns and resonant bass notes of the Études with sensitivity and control. The Canadian has worked extensively with Glass’s music on numerous occasions. The repetitive nature of her Études, as well as the Zen-like concentration it induces, requires a commitment to their “exercise” purpose, but Chow’s skills and musicianship make both dimensions a perfect fit. The differences with the interpretations of others may actually lie in tonal aesthetics. Where others play with the pieces in a more virtuosic and analytical way, making each individual layer of interwoven sounds transparent, as if they were emphasised separately, Chow emphasises the cohesion of the layers in a more lyric-oriented way, which shows, among other things, how even Glass’s Études can function as ambient music without losing their character as learning and exhibition pieces.