With 10 titles, EMI Classics has initiated a midline American Classics series, no doubt taking a cue from Naxos' success with a line utilizing the exact same moniker. This has been achieved through creative, though not necessarily artful, re-combinations of back catalog. Minimalism: Steve Reich-Philip Glass takes the Steve Reich items from a famous 1985 album -- one of the last things produced by EMI's Los Angeles-based classical division -- and combines them with a 1973 Reich track originally paired with John Cage and two Philip Glass pieces from a very successful Virgin disc led by Christopher Warren-Green that has been repackaged countless times. The John Adams piece that was paired with Ransom Wilson's interpretations of Eight Lines and Vermont Counterpoint has been moved off to an all-Adams disc within the series, Shaker Loops from the Warren-Green, and two additional Simon Rattle recordings make up the balance of the Adams disc.
Of course, one cannot be blamed for wondering what makes EMI think we're going to buy all these things over again. The Ransom Wilson album of Adams and Glass was issued on an early CD that quickly disappeared and, despite the entreaties of fans, did not appear again for 15 years. The LP on which Four Organs appeared didn't find release on CD until 30 years had elapsed. However, just nine years after the Wilson and five after Four Organs finally made it to CD, here they are, recombined into different contexts. It's the old pawnbroker marketing angle: you buy a piece of cloth for a penny, cut it into two, and sell it for a penny more than you paid for it. The attention to detail is such in the package that Michael Tilson Thomas alone is credited for playing Four Organs. Consult the front cover of the original Angel LP to find that, indeed, four organists were employed: Ralph Grierson, Roger Kellaway, and Reich himself played on the recording in addition to Thomas -- not to mention the maracas player.
The music? The Ransom Wilson Grand Pianola Music LP was interesting, in part, as it was one of the first digital LPs of contemporary music, and listeners were amazed at how bright and loud it was, and it still is so. After more than two decades of digital sound ruling the roost, that is not as an attractive an option as it might have been in 1985. While the Four Organs track is indeed a classic recording, the piece comes from a period in Reich's worklist that predates Drumming and is in a far more severe style than its discmates; many listeners will skip it. Warren-Green's interpretations of Glass are restrained and organic, which is partly what made them appealing on the original 1990 Minimalist album issued by Virgin, which also included, by the way, Eight Lines. These pieces work better in the context of the album from which they come rather than here, and while Minimalist is out of print, it's not hard to find, and the other EMI CDs originally containing these performances remain available. In short, EMI's Minimalism: Steve Reich-Philip Glass doesn't really have a reason to exist except as the 10th album in a 10-album release program. That's not to say that EMI's American Classics series is wholly without merit: the Ives volume contains Ingo Metzmacher and Ensemble Modern's A Portrait of Charles Ives, a 1990 disc that probably should never have gone out of print, yet was gone by 1994. While the package promises to provide context for these widely disparate works, it is through the lack of context that it falls on its sword; moreover, the scant liner notes are ridiculous.