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John ADAMS (b. 1947)
Phrygian Gates (1977-78) [24:38]; American Berserk (2001) [6:04]; China Gates (1977); Hallelujah Junction (1996) [16:05]
Ralph van Raat (piano); Maarten van Veen (piano)
rec. 7-8 January 2006, Potton Hall, Suffolk. DDD
NAXOS 8.559285 [51:01] 

 


The composer John Adams may well be near the forefront of British readers' minds after his excellent performance conducting his own work -- including the eight piano concerto at this year’s Proms (21 August 2007).

This particular disc forms part of the commendable and burgeoning 'American Classics' series from Naxos. It illustrates the breadth of this composer's interests. The piano works here contrast with some of his better-known pieces for large ensemble. Its contents span most of his career to date, although there is a focus on early works. Difficult pieces are played with aplomb by these accomplished musicians: and both pianists have a clear enthusiasm for their task. 

China Gates was Adams' first work in the minimalist style for which he has become known. Phrygian Gates, written a year later, is a longer and fuller development of the same structural ideas, although it lacks the lightness of touch which characterises the earlier work. The term ‘gate’ is a reference to an electronic device enabling sudden changes in the direction of current and draws an analogy with the sudden changes of tonal colour which characterise these works.

Hallelujah Junction, a duet for two pianos, reflects the influence of growing up playing the clarinet in his father's marching band and an interest in jazz and popular music. American Berserk, described by the composer as a 'short, manic, bipolar scherzo' - perhaps reminiscent of the better known Short Ride in a Fast Machine - is his most recent work for solo piano. 

Adams is regarded as having a firmly minimalist approach but one which is less pure than some of his contemporaries, such as Phillip Glass in particular. Certainly it is more tonal and expressive. This disc, although of historical and musicological significance and finely performed, does not show his music at its most accessible and in fact might be described as ‘dense’ or as ‘hardcore minimalism’ - at least by Adams' standards. Interestingly, the earliest piece, China Gates, is arguably the easiest to listen to and the most straightforward in appeal. 

The recording is likely to interest completists, those with an academic interest in American music and those with a particular concern for minimalist piano writing. It is unusual for Adams' music to seem difficult, but this is one of those rare occasions. 

Julie Williams

 

 

 


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