John ADAMS (b. 1947)
Harmonielehre (1984/5) [42:05]
Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986) [5:04] San Francisco Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas
rec. 8-11 December 2010 (Harmonielehre); 7 September 2011 (Short Ride in a Fast Machine), live, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, USA
SFS MEDIA SFS 0053 [47:11]
John Adams is probably the pre-eminent composer in the USA today. I hope that he has had cause to change a view he expressed in 2008: that he was being blacklisted and monitored by the US security forces probably as a result of have written his opera The Death of Klinghoffer with its storyline of Middle-East terrorism. The opera concerns the hijacking by Palestinian terrorists of the cruise liner Achille Lauro in 1985 and the murder of the wheelchair-bound Jewish/American passenger Leon Klinghoffer. Adams’ perception is reminiscent of the McCarthy era of the 1950s.
It was around 25 years ago that Adams came to world attention with his celebrated opera Nixon in China. The opera was based on US President Richard Nixon’s epochal 1972 encounter with Chairman Mao Tse-tung in the People's Republic of China. The libretto was severely critical of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. I’m looking forward to attending what will be the Berlin première of Nixon in China in September at the Philharmonie. It is to be performed by a fine cast of soloists headed by Gerald Finley, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Singers and conducted by Adams himself.
A score much admired by Adams devotees, Harmonielehre meaning ‘study of harmony’ in German, is named after Arnold Schoenberg’s treatise. Harmonielehre. It was commissioned and premièred in 1985 by the San Francisco Symphony under Edo de Waart during Adams’ time as the orchestra’s composer-in-residence. Adams said that he was inspired to write the work - often described as a symphony - as a result of a dream he had driving over the Bay Bridge spanning San Francisco Bay. In the dream, as he was looking across at the bay, a huge super-tanker in the bay just took off into the sky like a rocket with tremendous thrust.
The three movement score uses Adams’s own personal brand of minimalism with plenty of swiftly shifting harmonic variations and highly contrasted drama. As yet untitled the first movement, lasting over seventeen minutes here in performance, opens and closes with brutally pounding percussion. I found the energy of the relentless driving rhythms, graduated accelerations and shifting colours remarkable. A contrasting central section of nostalgic yearning contains distinct Sibelian elements and sends a Nordic chill right down to the bones. Titled The Amfortas Wound the slow movement was inspired by psychologist Carl Jung’s analogy of the medieval king Amfortas whose wounds could not be healed. Adams stated that this movement was about “… sickness and infirmity, physical and spiritual”. This is broodingly calm music with faint suggestions of a dark undercurrent and the forlorn strains of the trumpet in the high registers. The prevailing mood is broken by a short section of writing at 7:50-9:39 that quickly becomes more weighty and percussive. Adams gave the third movement the title Meister Eckhardt and Quackie as a result of a dream he had after his daughter Emily - nicknamed Quackie - was born. In the dream Quackie is riding on the shoulders of Meister Eckhardt the medieval mystic, gliding through space among the heavenly bodies. Immediately I was struck by the positive and agreeable disposition of the writing. Although the incessantly propulsive rhythms are still there they feel lighter. It is easy to imagine matter floating through outer space with the repeating process of coming closer then fading into the distance. In the lead-up to the conclusion at 7:04 the tempo quickens and the textures increase in weight becoming more angry with pounding percussion at 10:21. The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra played for all they were worth under Michael Tilson Thomas. I can fully understand why the audience at Davies Symphony Hall cheered so loudly.
Short Ride in a Fast Machine was commissioned by the Great Woods Festival at Mansfield, Massachusetts in the USA and premièred in 1986 by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. In the same year the San Francisco Symphony under Edo de Waart were quick to perform the piece. Sometimes dubbed an ‘Orchestral Fanfare’ the score certainly blows the cobwebs away. It’s ebullient and exciting with those incessantly driving rhythms propelling the music forward. I can see why this short piece has become a concert hall encore. Sometimes the music evokes the sound-world of Aaron Copland especially in the brass writing.
These are masterly live performances played with intensity and radiant with character. The recording is first class, vividly clear and excellently balanced.
Michael Cookson
Masterly live performances played with intensity and radiant with character.