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John ADAMS (b. 1947)
Complete Piano Music
Phrygian Gates (1977-78) [24:37]
American Berserk (2001) [6:04]
China Gates (1977) [5:15]
Hallelujah Junction (1996)* [16:05]
Ralph van Raat, Maarten van Veen* (pianos)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, 7-8 January 2006. DDD
NAXOS 8.559285 [52:01]

This recording, containing all of John Adams’ solo piano works composed thus far, comes into direct competition with the Road Movies CD (Nonesuch 79699-20) which John Quinn enthusiastically reviewed in August 2004. The main difference between the recordings is the inclusion of the violin/piano piece Road Movies on the earlier CD, whereas the CD at hand contains only the piano works. However, if one is interested in just the piano music, the budget-priced Naxos may be a better buy. As far as the performances are concerned, there is little to choose between them. Both are excellent.
The Naxos CD begins with the longest work, Phrygian Gates. As the pianist here, Ralph van Raat, writes in the notes for the CD, in both this work and the much shorter China Gates “minimalistic (apparent) repetition plays and important and striking role.” In Phrygian Gates the juxtaposition of the Lydian and Phrygian modes, or of light and dark, results in the piece’s “intense musical tension.” As the work progresses the Lydian mode diminishes and the Phrygian mode takes over and gradually determines the work’s character. Although the work has enough variety to keep it interesting in its nearly half-hour duration, I prefer the other, shorter pieces on the CD, where Adams says what he has to say in a smaller space and yet leaves a more powerful impression on the listener. As to the performances, van Raat captures the essence of the piece well and displays more variety in dynamics than Rolf Hind does on Nonesuch, even if van Raat’s is the more distantly recorded version.
The much shorter China Gates, which Adams composed before Phrygian Gates, is for me the more effective work. In its five minutes, it expresses much with its apparent repetition. It is a layered work with a slow bass line, a faster inner pulse in the treble with both varied and repeated patterns. The result, as van Raat writes, is like a “diamond which radiates different colors and moods at different angles of light, though it remains the same object.” The two performances are in many ways opposite. Nicolas Hodges’ on the Nonesuch CD is faster and clearer and emphasizes the rhythm of the piece, while van Raat’s with his slower tempo and more distant recording, demonstrates the dreaminess of the piece and is indeed mesmeric. I enjoyed both immensely.
With American Berserk, Adams’ most recent piano work, we move into a whole new world. With its fractured boogie-woogie influence of Conlon Nancarrow, it reminded me a good deal of some of Ligeti’s Etudes, but without that composer’s sense of humor. Its rhythmic shifts and juxtaposition of harmonies lend it a complexity that is typical of Adams’ current style of composing, seemingly far removed from the minimalism of before. The work’s strange title is owed to a phrase by novelist Philip Roth. Both pianists do justice to the work, and their tempos are similar.
The CD concludes with the duo-piano work, Hallelujah Junction, where van Raat is joined by Maarten van Veen. The piece was named after a truck stop near John Adams’ cabin. It begins as a minimalist work with a repeated “—lle-lu-jah” pattern that gets more agitated as it goes on. This is followed by a serene middle movement that is almost impressionistic, until it increases its energy leading directly into the final movement where the full four-syllable “hallelujah” ends the piece in a kind of crazed boogie-woogie. Of all the works on this CD, Hallelujah Junction left the greatest impression on me. It has the sound of the mature Adams and could not be mistaken for music by anyone else. The performance here is certainly fluent enough, but the Nonesuch recording with its closer recording and better separation of the two instruments makes more of an impact on the listener.
For someone interested in Adams’ piano works, then, this disc can be safely recommended.
Leslie Wright

see also review by Julie Williams

Naxos American Classics page


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