Philip Glass devoted more than 20 years to writing his 'Études': technically formidable piano pieces composed to challenge and hone his musicianship. Here, in other words, was the minimalist icon's equivalent of practicing penalty kicks or backflips – an exercise in musical quasi-masochism from which he hoped to emerge a better player.
By design then, the Études, all 20 of which were performed at the NCH, are intricate, occasionally fussy – less immediately engaging than his earlier piano repertoire, with its circular motifs and spiraling arpeggios. The 78-year-old was being deliberately obtuse – indeed, obtuseness might be considered the point of the exercise.
With just three performers, against the five appearing last week in London, the audience might have initially felt short-changed (the missing Vikingur Ólafsson was the toast of the concert at the Barbican).
Such misgivings were soon rendered irrelevant. It was intriguing to see Glass, a towering presence in 20th century classical music, stooped alone over a piano while Timo Andres and Maki Namekawa brought an extraordinary dynamism that the septuagenarian composer, for all his fluidity, could not match.
A subtle progression could be discerned in Glass' compositional technique as the evening went on. Stark and precise, the earlier Études were self-consciously contemporary; later, perhaps mindful of his place in the pantheon, Glass drew on his forbears, evoking Chopin, Schubert and others.
Of the three musicians Namakewa was especially breathtaking. Her features lit with urgency, she invested each note with passion, earnestness and anguish, so that Glass' stripped down codas gained in intensity, what was once cold and thoughtful rendered vivid and fiery.
With a name that suggests a minor character from a Wes Anderson movie and a degree from fancy-pants Yale university, Ellis Ludwig-Leone was never going to end up fronting a hair-metal band.