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John ADAMS (b. 1947)
Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986) [4í05"]
The Wound Dresser* (1988) [19í19"]
Shaker Loops (1978, rev. 1983) [25í28"]
Ferrucio BUSONI (1866-1924) arr. ADAMS Berceuse élégiaque (1991) [9í27]
*Nathan Gunn (baritone)
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
Recorded at the Lighthouse Poole Centre for Arts, UK, 10 Ė 11 June 2003. DDD
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559031 [58í20"]


Having already given us several excellent discs of Samuel Barber for Naxos, Marin Alsop now turns her attention to the music of another fellow American, John Adams.

How does one define Adams? In his liner note Daniel Felsenfeld states that Adams "has earned his place in the mighty triumvirate of American Minimalist composers alongside Philip Glass and Steve Reich." If one takes that statement at face value I would respectfully have to disagree. I mean no slight on either Glass or Reich; though Adamsí music speaks much more powerfully to me than does theirs, but thatís a subjective preference. Adams has gone way beyond minimalism and in the process has become a much richer composer (not in the monetary sense) and a much more interesting and communicative one. In his recent Penguin Companion to Classical Music Paul Griffiths describes Adams brilliantly as "a post-minimalist master of exuberance and intricacy." The adroitly-chosen programme of this CD gives us a glimpse of some of the stages on Adamsí evolutionary journey from minimalist beginnings.

The earliest piece, where minimalist influences are at their strongest, is Shaker Loops. As Mr. Felsenfeld points out, this work started off as a string quartet with the title Wavemaker. In this form it was withdrawn after a single performance. What is not mentioned in the note is Adamsí subsequent revision of the score into a string septet (3 violins, 1 viola, 2 cellos and a bass). This is the 1977 Ďeditioní which remains a completely valid version. What we have here is the 1983 re-working of the piece for full string orchestra, the form in which I strongly suspect it is most frequently heard nowadays.

Ms Alsop leads a quite splendid performance. The athletic, at times pounding "shaking" of the first section is very well done. I love Mr. Felsenfeldís description of this section as "fast and wildly caffeinated." The eerie atmosphere of the second, more subdued episode is delivered very well and Ms Alsop also responds very acutely to the more serious introspection of the third part. The final section brings the work full circle with a revisiting of the idea, if not the material, of the opening "shaking." This very fine reading stands up very well in comparison with the composerís own superb recording (on Nonesuch) though not even Alsop can match the truly formidable climax that Adams achieves in the third section just before the link into the final section.

Chronologically, the next work in the programme is A Short Ride in a Fast Machine. Adams has said of the title of the work: "You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadnít?" Well, Marin Alsop has the top down and her foot firmly to the floor in this exhilarating reading of what is a tremendous showpiece. The recorded sound here is bright and in your face, very appropriately. The performance matches in quality the pioneering account by Edo de Waart and the San Francisco Symphony (Nonesuch) although the Nonesuch recording managed to combine brightness with just a little more bass depth than the Naxos engineers achieve. However, itís a marvellous reading nonetheless and makes an ear-catching opening to the CD.

The Wound Dresser is one of Adamsí masterpieces. Itís a setting of part of a poem by Walt Whitman in which the poet describes his experiences as a nurse during the American Civil War. The text is pretty uncompromising and is not for the squeamish. Iím not certain what motivated Adams to write the piece. Thereís been a lot of speculation that it is a response to the AIDS crisis. In the notes accompanying the composerís own recording of the work the annotator points out that at the time of composition Adamsí mother was tending his father who was dying of Alzheimerís disease. And, of course, the work may also be inspired by a revulsion against violence. Whatever the inspiration, the music is deeply eloquent and moving. Mr. Felsenfeld rightly notes that Adams employs "admirable restraint". Itís a trait that IĎve remarked on, before reading this comment, in reviewing recently Adamsí On the Transmigration of Souls. Itís not all restrained. Thereís a searing passage, featuring manic bugle calls between 11í00" and about 12í30" at the words "I dress a wound in the side, deep, deep". But for the most part the music is sombre and excess is tellingly avoided. The piece is, effectively, a soliloquy for baritone and orchestra.

In Nathan Gunn we have a superb soloist. The dignity and compassion of his singing suit the music to perfection. He has a rich, full tone and he employs just the right amount of vibrato. His diction is excellent. He is given first rate support by Marin Alsop and her Bournemouth players. The poignancy and passion of such passages as "Come, sweet death!" (8í46") and "some are so young, some suffer so much" (16í46") are beautifully delivered. Thereís strong competition from Sanford Sylvan, for whom the work was conceived, singing with the composer conducting (Nonesuch). Sylvan has a lighter, slightly more forward baritone which some may feel suits the music even better. Personally, I wouldnít be without either version. This is a masterly score and this newcomer is fully worthy of the quality of the music.

One word of warning. Naxos print the text of The Wound Dresser. Inexplicably, however, theyíve missed out the first stanza (nine lines). However, Gunnís diction is so good that I donít see this being a major inconvenience.

Oddly, the most recent work on the disc isnít even mentioned in the notes. This is Adamsí arrangement for chamber orchestra of an orchestral work by Busoni. The original, his Op. 42, dates from 1909 and its full title is Berceuse élégiaque (des Mannes Wiegenlied am Sarge seiner Mutter) or Cradle Song (of the Man at his Motherís Coffin). Here again, perhaps, we see evidence of Adamsí restraint in the face of suffering in that this sombre but subdued piece by Busoni clearly exerted a strong appeal to him. In a note accompanying his own 1995 recording Adams commented that the work is "of the most hushed intimacy. Here the cradle rocks with barely perceptible movement while the musical Ďnarratorí sings a song of dolorous, resigned sorrow." Adamsí own recording is very fine but by a short head I prefer Alsopís version. The Adams performance is recorded a bit more closely and, dare I suggest it, perhaps Alsop exerts even more control over the dynamic range. In any event it is she that best conveys the "hushed intimacy". The Berceuse is a splendid homage by one composer to another and Naxos have very sensibly ordered the CD so that this work follows The Wound Dresser to which it is a most effective foil. Incidentally, in the heading to this review Iíve given the composition date as stated on the CD packaging. However, the documentation accompanying the Adams recording states that the Berceuse was first performed in November 1990 so I suspect that date may be the correct one.

All of Marin Alsopís discs that Iíve heard to date have impressed me but I fancy that this disc may be her most important achievement to date in the studio. Quite apart from the excellence of the performances, all given good recorded sound, this CD offers an ideal and very inexpensive introduction to the music of one of the most interesting and stimulating composers currently before the public. For the newcomer to Adamsí music this is well-nigh ideal. Those who are already enthusiasts for his music should also add it to their collection, even if this involves duplication, for it is a top quality release. Urgently recommended.

John Quinn



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