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John ADAMS (b. 1947)
Road Movies

Road Movies (1995)* [15’14"}
Hallelujah Junction (1996)** [16’25"]
China Gates (1977)*** [4’30"]
American Berserk (2001)*** [6’00"]
Phrygian Gates (1977)**** [25’19"]
* Leila Josefowicz (violin); John Novacek (piano)
** Nicholas Hodges and Rolf Hind (pianos)
*** Nicholas Hodges (piano)
****Rolf Hind (piano)
Recordings: 28-29 July, 2003, at Lyndhurst Hall, Air Studios, London; and *27 September 2002 at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City
NONESUCH 7559-79699-2 [68’05"]

 

The contents of this CD are listed above in the order in which they appear on the disc. I don’t know if the ordering is deliberate. However, I found it particularly rewarding to listen to the music in chronological order. I’ve long admired John Adams as one of the most interesting and stimulating, yet accessible, of modern composers. However, to date I’ve only been acquainted with his larger-scale orchestral and operatic works. The arrival of this CD was an opportunity to explore a side of his output that was new to me.

Adams himself contributes a lively liner note from which I will draw without apology in this review (why not let the composer speak for himself?) He says that Phrygian Gates "probably holds the position of "opus one" among [his] mature compositions." Like the smaller scale China Gates it was created during a period when Adams lived close to the sea and was fascinated by wave behaviour. The regular yet irregular rhythms of the tides clearly inspired him and, as he says, "…the regularity and infinitely modulated variety of wave motions on the sea surface got me to thinking about the nature of sound, which itself reaches our ears via very similar wave motion." I suppose both these pieces might be described as Minimalist (or at least they owe much to the techniques of minimalism, I think) but, as ever Adams is his own man.

Phrygian Gates is in three parts, the first of which comprises more than half the total length of the work. I found the constantly changing rhythmic patterns absolutely fascinating and intriguing. This aspect of the music must present a formidable challenge to performers but seems to present no difficulties to Rolf Hind who sustains momentum and interest brilliantly. But there’s much more to this music than "mere" rhythmic cleverness. There are frequent changes of mood as well and these, as much as the rhythmic variety, create rewarding tensions. In the short second movement slow, weighty chords predominate before the music runs without a pause into the third movement. This consists of relentlessly busy, uneasy music projected with drive and panache by Hinds. I found Phrygian Gates to be a piece of great interest. Its contemporaneous companion, China Gates is a gentle study dominated by quavers, which Adams says was suggested by rainfall. It’s deceptively simple (but clearly isn’t) and very soothing and beguiling.

Road Movies is described by its composer as "travel music". The middle movement, entitled, ‘Meditative’, offers "almost motionless contemplation". Thus Adams provides much-needed contrast with the two flanking movements which are much busier. The first movement, ‘Relaxed Groove’, is underpinned by incessant piano figurations, over which the violinist plays (and plays with) melodic fragments. It’s the last movement, however, that really gets the pulse racing ‘40% Swing’ is "a perpetual motion machine with echoes of jazz and bluegrass", according to Adams. I’d call it the musical equivalent of driving in the fast lane. It’s a furious perpetuum mobile. It’s exhilarating and had this listener somewhat out of breath. It must be exhausting to play but the performers here are tireless advocates.

Many of Adam’s pieces have quirky titles and Hallelujah Junction is no exception. In fact the title came first for the piece is named after a truck stop on the border between California and Nevada. Adams disarmingly says that "it was a case of a good title needing a piece, so I obliged by composing this work for two pianos." The possibilities of sonorities and rhythmic interplay between two pianos are excitingly explored in this three-movement work. Adams describes in more detail than is possible to discuss here how he uses the syllables in the word "Hallelujah" to give rhythmic impetus to the music. The whole work is full of variety and interest and is stunningly well played. The furious finale is especially exhilarating. As it proceeds the tempo is gradually ratcheted up and the rhythms become ever more complex until, as the end approaches, we hear "the by-now crazed pianists, in extremis of full-tilt boogie." Adams’ memorable phrase most aptly describes the closing pages as you’ll discover if you hear this disc.

The most recent work on the disc is American Berserk, written for Garrick Ohlsson. As the title suggests this is the most forceful and driven music in the collection. To my ears it’s also the darkest in tone. Adams describes it as "a fast, fractured study of what could be called "indigenous" rhythms." I’m bound to say that I found it harder to "get into" than the other pieces on the disc and I’m still far from sure I understand it. It’s a short but highly demanding pianistic tour de force that Nicholas Hodges dispatches with astonishing virtuosity.

But all the performances on this disc display great virtuosity. All the works, even when they sound simple, must make huge demands of technique and concentration on the performers. As far as I could judge without access to scores all the technical demands are more than met here. The recorded sound is excellent and Adams’ notes are entertaining and interesting – just like the music they describe.

This is a fascinating disc and all credit to Nonesuch for continuing their long championship of John Adams’ music by releasing it. Those collectors who find him, as I do, one of the most interesting musical voices around will surely want to add this disc to their collection. Recommended with enthusiasm.

John Quinn



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