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John ADAMS (b. 1947)
Harmonium (1981) [35:01]
Sergei RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
The Bells Op.35 (1913) [38:09]
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Robert Shaw
rec. Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta, Georgia, 4-5 November 1995
TELARC CD-80365 [73:52]

Working in Farringdon Records on Cheapside in London, we poor shop-floor monkeys would occasionally be visited by a very nice Decca rep. He handed out record tokens as a parting gift after genial Giovanni the mad manager had put in improbably optimistic orders for multiple copies of Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze or some such. The first LP I bought on the strength of this generosity was ECM 1277, the 1984 recording of Harmonium with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Edo de Waart. This was John Adams’s first commission during his tenure as composer-in-residence with the San Francisco forces from 1979 to 1985. It appeared in 1981, around the same time as works such as Shaker Loops, and shared a similar sense of the sonorous. It did however provide a more romantic, softer and friendlier face for the fading fans of hard-line minimalism. 

I would be pushed to choose one performance and recording over the other. Robert Shaw’s timings are shorter than De Waart’s, but the massed voices and orchestra of Atlanta, all of whom are named in the booklet, have an equal sense of scale and grandeur. The recording is lush and gorgeous, but I have the impression that Symphony Hall in Atlanta is a little drier as an acoustic than the Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. The work has not always been received in a positive light in live performance, and the extended passages of atmospheric development can appear a bit long-winded these days. This is a piece which can stand or fall on the sense of expectancy and drama which the conductor and musicians create. Adams’s skill in producing grand gestures and well-orchestrated textures are thoroughly explored here. The same goes for his ability to create new music through a certain amount of musical ‘shopping’. There are a few echoes of Stravinsky and others here and there, but the biggest item for me, and one nobody seems to mention, is the fleecing of Louis Andriessen’s De Staat for the final movement, Wild Nights. You can’t call it plagiarism without getting into trouble, but I don’t know any other composer who would seriously imagine they could get away with it. 

My main reference for Rachmaninov’s The Bells has to be a Russian one. I’ve sought out the 1985 Melodiya recording by Dmitri Kitaenko conducting the Bolshoi Theatre Choir and Moscow Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra which appeared in Europe on the RCA/BMG label. Edgar Allan Poe’s text was in fact from the outset substituted in this piece for a version by symbolist poet Konstantin Balmont, so that singing the piece in the Russian language ‘fits’ in many ways much better to my ears that the American version sung on the Atlanta recording. Comparing the two is like comparing chalk and cheese in other ways however, with the Russian forces contrasting the grim and doom-laden with more Respighi like colourations in the lighter movements. The Atlanta forces sound more Hollywood than anything else in the opening, and the gloriously plush brass and choir refuse steadfastly to make the hairs stand on end, even when the bells are ‘sobbing, in their throbbing, what a tale of horror dwells!’ No, there ain’t no horror here, and it all ends up sounding rather jolly. 

This is not to say that this is a bad performance. There is plenty of cracking playing, and while the chorus sounds a bit colourless compared to the rough intensity of the Russian voices, they do have plenty of dynamic unity. I’m certainly not one to claim that only Russian musicians can perform this or any other manifestly Russian-manufactured music. Victor Ledbetter is a powerful soloist, as is Renée Fleming, and if Karl Dent is a little less forceful then he certainly makes up for it in musical sensitivity and expression. If the language is not a barrier then you will probably end up with little to complain about with this recording. The booklet notes have a useful and fairly detailed analysis of the piece by Nick Jones, including numerous musical illustrations and pointing out Rachmaninov’s allusions to other pieces. I just found myself recognising these references more in the Russian recording than in this one, as well as the influence it must have had on later composers such as Shostakovich. It may be that the Russian ‘sound’ brings more familiarity than with the Americans, but I found myself a little frustrated by the relaxed luxury of the whole thing. It’s all a little too well-fed and healthy to make it really moving.

With a living American composer and a Russian from a country on the brink of revolution looking at each other from across the Atlantic with works of similar scale and magnitude, this is in fact not quite the strange coupling one might imagine. The accessibility of Adams’s writing in Harmonium chimes in well with Rachmaninov’s The Bells, and while there is as much to contrast as to compare, the dramatic content of both works ultimately contains similar aims. I think I would take de Waart’s marginally more vibrant ECM recording of the former. Have a listen to the LSO chorus and orchestra with André Previn on EMI for an alternative Western recording - sung in Russian - for the Rachmaninov if you get the chance. This release also includes a powerful recording of Prokofiev’s Ivan the Terrible. John Adams’s Harmonium is also available on Nonesuch with a decent coupling of the Klinghoffer Choruses if the idea of buying a CD with only 32 minutes of music appals. If you like the idea of having both of these pieces on one disc then there’s plenty to enjoy with Robert Shaw, but I find The Bells too much of a flock-lined compromise to make this a 100% recommendation, even at budget price.

Dominy Clements

 

 


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