GLASS: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra. Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra.
Julian Lloyd Weber, cellist; Evelyn Glennie and Jonathan Haas, timpanists; Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orch/Gerard Schwarz, cond.

HOOVER: Medieval Suite. CORIGLIANO: The Pied Piper Fantasy. CHEN YI: The Golden Flute for Flute and Orchestra.
Alexa Still, flute; New Zealand Symphony Orch/James Sedares, cond.

A pair of gold-medal winners here, featuring three American composers born respectively in 1937 (Glass), Corigliano Jr. (1938) and Ms. Hoover (1939), and a Chinese-American fourth (Ms. Chen) born in 1953, two years before her countryman Bright Sheng. The music of both ladies is new to me, but they are composers of individuality and great resource once their respective works have begun with metal percussion softly tintinnabulating. Of the two, Ms. Chen is the more dramatic and “modern” personality, although nothing in The Golden Flute of 1997 is arcane or off-putting, designed to evoke two Chinese flutes, one bamboo, the other clay. The first of three movements have no descriptive signature beyond “I” and “II,” but “III” is marked Allegro and builds to a whirligig climax. The writing for flute is (how to say?) idiomatic and virtuosic in the same frame, and Alexa Still is a plainly superb soloist, not only in The Golden Flute but in Ms. Hoover’s five-movement Medieval Suite from 1983. This is unexpectedly gentler music, inspired by Barbara Tuchman’s “A Distant Mirror” about violent 14th-century France. It opens with borrowed music from Guillaume de Machaut, and later on from Gregorian Chant, but the voice is Katherine Hoover’s, ever charming, ingenious, and a showcase for the protean talents of Alexa Still, who runs Emanuel Palud a neck-and-neck race in the new century’s flute sweepstakes.

Corigliano’s first-featured Pied Piper Fantasy is the longest work at 37-1/2 minutes, which James Galway commissioned in 1981 and premiered a year later. Its seven movements, the most kaleidoscopic music on this disc, follow the tale of Hamelin’s rats, the Piper’s riddance of them, and his revenge on the ungrateful townsfolk by piping their children into legend. There is a wild “War Cadenza” for the soloist in his battle with the rats until he realizes they are hypnotized by his simple song heard at the start (and at the close). The Pied Piper is an audience-participation piece, semi-theatrical in structure, with the children in the audience leaving their seats and joining the piper as he leads them out of Hamelin. Their drums and flutes echo his as the sound fades, leaving the stage in darkness as it was when the piece began. With all respect to Galway and our appreciation for his commission, Ms. Still out-flutes him in this stupendously engineered performance, conducted with the mastery one has come to expect and treasure from James Sedares, and played to a fare-the-well by the New Zealand SO with which he’s made so many outstanding discs. I’ve played this one several times and its charm grows rather than palls, which so much 20th-century music tends to do after the first flush of surprise and sometimes pleasure.

Those who are turned on by (and/or tuned-into) the iterative music of Philip Glass will need no encouragement from me to buy this knockout Concerto disc – the first of four – with stellar soloists, while the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic plays like a London-based orchestra under the enkindling leadership of Gerard Schwarz. Although 46 Liverpuddlians in the ranks found fault with his leadership last spring (more specifically with his programmatic departures from standard Merseyside rep), they failed to daunt him; he makes them play grippingly where called for, and with lyrical beauty also where called for. This time the recording team is Orange Mountain Music’s – not the Royal LPO’s in-house crew – and a stellar congregation they prove themselves to be. The sound is as fine as Koch’s NZSO flute collection, allowing for ambient differences in their respective auditoria.

All three soloists, cellist Julian Lloyd Webber and percussionists Jonathan Haas and Evelyn Glennie who play 14 timpani, are outstanding: their teamwork is hair-trigger. If the cello concerto strikes me as a more substantial work, Glass is even more a lyrical composer than he is a rhythmician with shared roots in the music of Steve Reich and Terry Riley (I still remember the shock of The Temple of Anthrax on a CBS stereodisc, sent among a monthly batch of “classical” releases in palmier days than these). Glass has not abandoned “minimalism,” but he has hugely expanded and, at best, delectably “humanized” it. The cello concerto wore better than the Concerto Fantasy for tuned tubs (plus the orchestra’s percussion section) on a fourth hearing of each, but the batterie music is special in a way approaching Takemitsu’s weirdly neglected Cassiopeia (now there is a collaborative project for Haas and Glennie, although it was written for a single, storied solo percussionist, Stomu Yamash’ta). Glass is no Takemitsu, or for that matter a Heuwell Tircuit, who also wrote a percussion concerto for Yamash’ta that lacked only an extended climactic coda (in which respect it still reminds me of the abrupt end of Sibelius’ Third Symphony). But Glass knows his percussion and how to entrance soloists as well as audience. We already have at least three recordings of his Violin Concerto, but a fourth is expected from Merseyside before Maestro Schwarz bids adieu in 2006, along with whatever other concertos Glass has composed in addition to the those we now have on discs.

R.D. (November 2004)