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John ADAMS (b 1947)
Fearful Symmetries (1988) **
Chamber Symphony (1992) **
Four songs from I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky (1995) *
Song about the bad boys and the news
A sermon on romance
Leila’s song

Christian zeal and Activity (1973) **+
Virginie Pesch (Leila), Odile Fargère (Consuelo) and Emilie Simon (Tiffany) *
Emmanuel Djob (David and the Preacher) *+
Ensemble Diagonales *
Orchestre Philharmonique de Montpellier **
René Bosc
Recorded in Montpellier between 1996-98
ACTES SUD AD 085 [77.07]

Adams with a Languedoc accent. I’m not quite sure why I was surprised to see those combustible pieces Fearful Symmetries and the Chamber Symphony played by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Montpellier – after all the Lyon Opera Orchestra is hardly a stranger to Adams’ music on record – but I do admit to a certain curiosity when I saw that the Four Songs and Christian Zeal and Activity were also on the programme. Zany motoric propulsion is one thing but how would these French forces cope with the Baptist certainties of the latter and the gospel and jazz-pop saturation of the first three songs let alone the rock star guitar heroics of Earthquake? In the end my fears – scepticism, call it what you will – were pretty much misplaced.

In an attractive book format with cream coloured pages and an encomium from the composer himself the French-only notes set the scene. Let’s get the technicalities over with here; I wish I could decipher Actes Sud’s CD release numbers. This is the second one in a row that has taxed my powers beyond breaking point. I hope the number above is correct but some persistence may be in order because there are several numbers and a barcode scattered throughout disc and booklet. You could also try OMA34102. Back to the music. The disc opens with Fearful Symmetries, that motoric intensifier with its vocalized saxophones and their human cries. The constant lifting and lightening of the instrumental textures is realized here with superior skill – those instrumental suspensions, ingenuous build-ups and releasing of orchestral tension as ever splendid. The Montpellier orchestra is especially successful in its reaching of the decisive apex of the piece before the coda of rippling and glacial treble-orientated writing. The sense of almost absorbed abstraction, still quiveringly alive, but reaching its by now natural span is gorgeously – if that’s not too florid a word for the intensely interior experience – maintained. Perhaps it took a French orchestra to concentrate my mind on the matter but that coda does have something spatially Gallic about it.

The Chamber Symphony, one of the great American works of the last twenty years, was composed in 1992. The marvelous sonorities of Mongrel Airs, the first of the three movements, the vitality of the writing and the orchestral colour are vivid and dazzling. There are moments of drum madness, skittering violins and insistent, manic woodwind, driven as if by a force of nature. Lest one underestimate it there is also a sense of the sophisticated and dangerous insistence of cartoon music throughout much of Mongrel Airs that will later resurface with decisive finality in the last of the three, the unambiguously titled Roadrunner. The Aria with Walking Bass second movement opens with an air of solemnity that becomes increasingly cauterized by eddying fiddles and absurd orchestral interjections. The bass line meanwhile continues its now half hidden obscured passage, as if indifferent to the aural perversity surrounding it. Its dignity is the dignity of a chorale prelude, assailed but not overthrown by the incessant activity and abrasion around it. Finally the madcap antics of Roadrunner. Tuned jazz percussion clip and flip their way through this monstrous burlesque; huge rabble rousing excitement and the variety and vitality of lurid cartoon colours. It’s like the Revue de la Cuisine gone berserk. Just as one expects still more mayhem the solo violin perks up, dusts himself down, slips into a tuxedo and indulges in a virtuosic cadenza straight out of the nineteenth century canon. All fall silent except for a tambourine, astonished by this strange turn of events, as well they might. Adams toys with one’s expectations with triumphant assurance.

The Four songs derived from I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky occupy still stranger stylistic ground. A gospel harmony trio with jazz piano comping vie with a rocking gospel rip roarer; a pop tinged vamped chords charmer is followed by a tricksy electronic heavy rock guitar solo, complete with feed back and the whiff of cordite and the reek of lank, unwashed locks. Christian Zeal and Activity features the stentorian Emmanuel Djob in full Preacher mode. This is simpler stuff but full of concentrated power, repetitious certainly in the manner of such sermons, but reaching full power through an accumulation of different verbal emphases and rhythms. To that extent it’s stylistically the opposite of, say, Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, which takes a hymn and repeats it in a loop with subtly changing orchestral backing.

Clearly directed more at the Francophone market this is a disc not to be ignored. It scoops up some prime Adams in fine performances, adds some eclectic flavouring and serves it up in imaginative and committed performances. I needn’t have worried and nor should you.

Jonathan Woolf

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