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John ADAMS (b. 1947)
Grand Pianola Music (1982) [32:02]
Solisti New York/Ransom Wilson
Shaker Loops (1978) [24:54]
London Chamber Orchestra/Christopher Warren-Green
The Chairman Dances - foxtrot for orchestra (1985) [12:47]
Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986) [4:28]
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. March 1984, Lehman College Center for Performing Arts, New York (Grand); 1, 4-5 Mach 1990, All Saints Church, Petersham (Shaker); July, September 1993, Symphony Hall, Birmingham† (Chairman, Machine). DDD†
Experience Classicsonline

First there was minimalism and then there was minimalism plus - which the pedantic might claim was not minimalism at all. I recall hearing Steve Reich's Variations from a tape sent to me from a friend in the USA in the 1980s. It was irresistible but its repetition of cells and almost imperceptible change-processing was minimalism. Before that there were other pieces such as various works by Colin McPhee, Stockhausen's Stimmung and elements that I now recognise as having a kinship such as the ostinatos in Sibelius's Nightride and Sunrise and Luonnotar.

John Adams, of East Coast birth, moved to San Francisco and struck an accommodation with romantic and even sentimental material. Compare him with the more rigorous New York-based Reich. 

Even so Adamsí Grand Pianola Music is instantly recognisable as minimalist from the iterated chirping, patter and song-cells. More disconcerting are his Liberace-Beethoven Emperor moments. You can hear these at 9:08 and again in the more burly third movement. The off-synch pianola effect that gives the piece its name can be heard in a much more emollient form in the pulsing of the two phase-uncoupled antiphonal pianos (12.52) onwards complete with aaah-ing sopranos and chaffing woodwind.† Shaker Loops, which is in four movements, is stronger, taut and more likeable than the lanky collage that is Grand Pianola Music. Its outer movements (Shaking and Trembling and A Final Shaking) sound like hyper-stressed versions of Sibelius from the Sixth Symphony and Nightride with just that hint of hoe-down. The Chairman Dances is classic Adams - an outtake from his opera Nixon in China. It was never used in the opera and portrays a surreal moment in which during a state banquet Madame Mao tempts Chairman Mao to dance the foxtrot. With a slight accent of chinoiserie Adams deploys his usual armoury of nervy repetitive cell iteration with tangy percussion and hysteria-inducing accelerations: not good for safe motorway driving. Things change on a knife-edge at 4:28 with a slinky, slewing, sliding dance evocation that returns at 6:50 in more moonlit subtlety. There are brass calls that sound like the urgent fanfares at the climactic moments in Debussy's La Mer. It's an attractive piece, there's no doubt of that. Short ride in a fast machine has clearly learnt from William Schuman's symphonic finales as it has from Roy Harris, from Stravinsky's Rite and from Copland's Rodeo.

Rob Barnett


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