The Essential Philip Glass, an album of 13 tracks taken from previous Sony releases, presents something of a dilemma: it gives a good idea of what some of Glass' music sounds like, but at the same time it badly misrepresents what much of Glass' music is actually about. Glass, in developing his "music with repetitive structures" (the description he preferred to minimalism), was creating a new kind of musical experience, one in which the traditional temporal expectations of a piece of music are overturned, where changes happen incrementally and very slowly over a long (sometimes a very long) span of time. A common response to his work, particularly his earlier pieces up through the mid-'70s, was boredom followed by a visceral jolt when the listener was suddenly hit by the power of the slowly evolving changes. The snippets on this album convey the sound of Glass' music, but their brevity rules out the possibility of their having the impact the composer intended. The producers who assembled this collection try to sidestep the problem by selecting a number of works from the composer's later period that in their entirety are short, including tracks from the albums Glassworks and Songs From Liquid Days. The excerpts from the operas are more problematic. "Bed," from Einstein on the Beach, is cut by about two-thirds, and the excerpts from Satyagraha and Akhnaten suffer the same fate, shortened to a third to a half of their original length. Still, the album is not without its merits. All the gripping performances are by the Philip Glass Ensemble (sometimes augmented by guest soloists), or in the case of Satyagraha and Akhnaten, taken from the original cast albums. The producers have certainly picked some of Glass' prettiest music, except for the two pop-y ramblings from Songs From Liquid Days. The tracks from Glassworks, Façades and Closing, are the most successful here because they are complete and have the simple elegance of the composer's best work. The three selections from Satyagraha, perhaps the composer's masterpiece, are beautifully sung by tenor Douglas Perry, and even in their truncated form, can't help but elicit a frisson.
It's hard to know exactly who the target audience is, since any fan of Glass' will probably already have much of this material and would probably want it in its complete form if they did not. If there is anyone in the world who is not familiar with his music, this disc would make a fair introduction to some of his most popular works, from a narrow stylistic slice of his output. The title -- The Essential Philip Glass -- seems like a misnomer; A Tasting of Philip Glass is more like it.