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It has been a busy month for Philip Glass. Only weeks after the premiere of his latest opera, Appomattox, in San Francisco he is back on the road, continuing the tour of his song cycle Book of Longing around the various venues that commissioned it – Toronto, Adelaide, New York, Stanford, Austin, Cardiff and London.
It seems natural to say “his” song cycle – posterity usually confers ownership on the composer – although the work is clearly signposted as a collaboration between Glass and the Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. The poems of his Book of Longing were published last year and quickly topped best-seller lists in his home country.
At the Barbican performance on Saturday the book of the texts ran out early on, but perhaps it is best to approach Glass’s work without foreknowledge of the poems. As long as one’s attention was divided between taking in the music and the words the two parts seemed equal partners, whereas a suspicion increasingly grew that there was more to the poetry than met the ear.
Cohen’s poems hark back to favourite themes – irresistible sexual attraction, disappointment in love, the ever-present burden of Jewish history – that range more widely than the average classical song cycle. Glass has responded by putting them together in a full evening’s length work that on the face of it aims to match their scope and variety. Four singers are used, both solo and in quartet; the eight musicians break up the songs with solo ruminations; and the miniature song settings draw from Glass far quicker responses than his larger pieces.
And yet: the music of Book of Longing feels as if it is trying to house the poems in a room that is simply too small. Glass hardly ever lets melody take flight (is there a single expressive tune in the entire 90 minutes?) and his harmony is nervous about venturing more than a few paces from its safe tonic key base. Saturday’s performance, supervised by Glass and illustrated by projections of Cohen’s accompanying drawings, left mixed feelings about the work – sometimes reaching out to new depths of feeling, sometimes retreating to tried and trusted formulas. There is, perhaps, a much stronger, shorter piece struggling to get out.
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