Glass: The Civil Wars: Act V

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Glass
LABELS: Nonesuch
WORKS: The Civil Wars: Act V
PERFORMER: Sondra Radvanovsky, Denyce Graves, Giuseppe Sabbatini; Morgan State University Choir, American Composers Orchestra/Dennis Russell Davies
CATALOGUE NO: 7559-79487-2
No, the sub-editors aren’t going mad; Robert Wilson’s title is typical of this Renaissance Man of the theatre’s eccentric but compelling ways. For Wilson’s grand project, intended for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, Philip Glass made two contributions; the final part, offered here, involves four singers representing, among others, Abraham and Mrs Lincoln and Garibaldi; a pair of spoken roles (here taken by Laurie Anderson and Wilson himself) play the parts of a young Mrs Lincoln and Robert E Lee. The text mixes Seneca in Latin with English, Italian and stream-of-consciousness multilingual passages. A chorus and large orchestra complete the line-up.

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Act V – otherwise known as ‘The Rome Section’, since it was first seen there – includes music of an appropriately Italianate caste. While overall it’s akin to the opera Akhnaten, its exact contemporary, Glass here assembles his Phrygian modal arpeggiations and major-minor sidesteps with both impressive flair, for more familiarly operatic immediacy and a subtlety which may surprise his detractors. Heroic tenor lines for Garibaldi and some splendidly brassy orchestration are balanced by moments of powerful lyric utterance and harmonic ingenuity, including the use of the traditional spiritual ‘Jacob’s Ladder’. This is among Glass’s best scores and, now persuasively performed, was overdue for release. Keith Potter