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John ADAMS (b. 1947)
Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986) [4:05]
The Wound Dresser (1988) [19:19]
Berceuse élégiaque (1991) [9:27]
Shaker Loops (1978, rev. 1983) [25:28]
Nathan Gunn, baritone
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Marin Alsop
Recorded at the Lighthouse Poole Centre for Arts, UK, 10-11 June 2003. DDD
NAXOS 8.559031 [58:20]

John Adams, the holy spirit of the trinity of minimalist composers that includes Philip Glass and Steve Reich is a truly American phenomenon. He grew up in high society New England, received an Ivy League education, and then, at the tail-end of the hippie generation, headed west for San Francisco to escape his upbringing and find his own voice. Find it he did, for his is one of the most original voices in modern music, and his form of minimalism has gone well beyond the clichéd style of his two famous colleagues to evolve into something fresh and intelligent not often heard in contemporary music.

In this collection of orchestral works Marin Alsop proves once again that she is one of the leading conductors in the world. She is the first to get beyond the regrettably novel moniker of "woman conductor" to take a rightful place in the pantheon of simply "fine musicians." She leads the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra here with clarity and precision, gaining from them a taut sense of rhythm and ensemble, and ravishing string colors.

Opening with Short Ride in a Fast Machine, we are off to the races with the type of energetic, forward-moving music that is the signature trait of Mr. Adams. Set over a wood block ostinato, this piece is compelling in its thrust and appreciable for its well-calculated brevity. Unlike some of his colleagues (ahem, Mr. Glass) Adams knows when to shut up, and does so to blindingly good effect.

Up next is the splendid Wound Dresser, set for baritone solo and orchestra, to texts adapted from Walt Whitman. Whitman was a nurse during the Civil War, and some of his poetry that relates his wartime experiences can be excruciating. Here, Adams adapts passages from Whitman to make for an achingly melancholy portrait of the horrors of war, and in particular a war before modern medicine. The texts are graphic, and sometimes disturbing, and the unrelenting sadness of the vocal line and the calm accompaniment from the orchestra can at times be quite emotionally taxing. I dare say that this is one of the best war pieces, and definitely one of the best settings of Whitman since Ned Roremís War Scenes of 1969. Nathan Gunn is superb both as a singer, whose tone is gorgeous and rich, but also as a communicator, whose enunciation is impeccable and his sincerity of delivery is spellbinding.

The Berceuse élégiaque is a lovely and haunting work. It is proof again that Adams is capable of reaching beyond the box of "minimalism" to deliver a convincing, original work while never really abandoning his trademark compositional devices. [see footnote]

The major piece in this program is the twenty-six minute Shaker Loops, which is very much a symphony and a tone poem rolled into one. Adams intertwines several concepts, namely, a literal gesture of shaking, a looping or repeating of a musical event in homage to electronic composition, and the habits and ceremonies of the Shaker religious sect. In sum, it makes for very convincing listening. Adams has created a sound portrait that spans epochs and lifestyles, modernity and age-old tradition, and the classical and avant-garde to create a very successful work of art.

The Bournemouth play to perfection, and as evidenced by this recording, we have a great deal to which to look forward from this superb American conductor. Sound quality is outstanding, notes by Daniel Felsenfeld are concise and well constructed, texts are included; my goodness for what more could you ask? Highly recommended on all fronts.

Kevin Sutton

see also review by John Quinn OCTOBER RECORDING OF THE MONTH

As John Quinn points out in his review, Berceuse élégiaque is an arrangement of the Busoni orchestral work which is not noted in the Naxos documentation. LM


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