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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
Rec. Lighthouse, Poole Centre for Arts, UK, 10-11 June 2003

This excellent disc gives the listener a welcome chance to get a feeling for the way John Adams’ music evolved over a period of ten years. Crucially, this decade saw the conception and completion of his first opera, ‘Nixon in China’, an experience which had a profound effect on his musical language.

Shaker Loops finds Adams emerging from the shadow of Steve Reich. It is a typically ingenious blend of minimalism and New England energy – even to the punning title, which plays on a musical term for trills, ‘shakes’, and the early religious sect known as the Shakers. The result is a small masterpiece for string orchestra, and as so often with Adams, it is the surprise with which one finds oneself reminded of other not obviously related composers that is a major part of the fascination of the music. The opening, for example, calls to my mind the buzzing strings of Sibelius, e.g. in the finale of the 5th Symphony. Later, the harmonics which proliferate like icicles in the texture of this movement are a magical touch. The strings of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra play superbly.

The cantata The Wound Dresser on track 2 is, for me, a more problematic piece. It is beautifully and sensitively performed by the baritone Nathan Gunn, but I worry about Adams’ choice of text. It is taken from a poem by Walt Whitman, and records that writer’s experiences as a nurse during the civil war. Whitman describes unflinchingly the terrible wounds he saw and treated; an example is "…from the stump of the arm, the amputated hand, I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood…" – I’ll spare you more, but suffice it to say this is a very different Whitman from the one known to lovers of the Sea Symphony or Toward the Unknown Region of Vaughan Williams.

Does this kind of text really bear setting to music? I am not convinced, though I would not for one moment doubt Adams’ deep sincerity or seriousness, and there is indeed a terrible beauty about this music, full of compassion as it is. A moving yet very uncomfortable experience – which may well be precisely what the composer intended.

As so often with these Naxos compilations, the programming of the music is a thing of elegance in itself, so that the piece that follows gently lifts the deep gloom of The Wound-Dresser. This is Adams lovely arrangement of Busoni’s Berceuse élégiaque, a lullaby-like piano piece, which Adams has set in such a way as to emphasise its strange dream-like quality. Again beautifully performed by Marin Alsop and her forces. (A surprising omission is that the liner notes don’t even mention this piece).

The disc opens with arguably Adams’ most celebrated work, Short Ride in a Fast Machine. The performers give this a crisp rhythmic lift-off, and I suspect that, apart from anything else, this is probably the fastest performance on CD (please don’t write if I’m wrong!) The textures are certainly admirably clear, with the advantage that one can hear that wood-block tapping away the whole time, so vital if one is to enjoy the constant regrouping over the basic pulse. And, for the first time, I relished the change at the half-way stage to a deeper toned wood-block – from ‘tick-tick’ to ‘tock-tock’ as it were. Such a simple touch, but strangely thrilling.

A disc to prize for Adams’ growing cohorts of admirers, and an ideal introduction for the curious.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

see reviews by Kevin Sutton and John Quinn October Recording of the Month

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