Glass/Cohen

I went to see and hear “The Book of Longing” last night, Philip Glass’ musical setting of a selection of Leonard Cohen’s poems.

Leonard Cohen, praised for the last forty years or so as much as a singer-songwriter as a poet, is an odd choice as a libbrettist. Glass may mostly be a better composer than Cohen, but it may not be a surprise that Leonard Cohen writes better Leonard Cohen songs than Philip Glass, and sings them better too. Throughout, the work suffers from the usual problem of my lowbrow encounters with English-language “art song”: words not written to be sung sound stilted to the pop-trained ear. (Some of the poems had actually been used as lyrics Cohen himself on Ten New Songs in 2001, and, while Glass’ pulsing melodies offer a lot, they’re not an obvious improvement on the originals.) Although many poets are terrible interpreters of their own work, Cohen’s experience as a singer means that the brief recorded interludes of his shorter poems are more pleasing than the longer songs between which they are sprinkled between and on which they comment.

The most magical moment of the evening came not at the Barbican but in St Paul’s tube station on the way home: my companion had dropped a glove and a good Samaritan came running up to return it. In a lovely coincidence (which he would especially appreciate), the bystander turned out to be my friend and colleague Bernard Carr who had just been watching the same concert with his wife and friends.