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John ADAMS (b. 1947)
Doctor Atomic Symphony [24:20]
Short Ride in a Fast Machine [4:00]
Harmonielehre [41:27]
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Peter Oundjian
rec. Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, February and April 2013
CHANDOS CHSA5129 [70:15]

This and an American Piano Concertos disc flow directly out of two concerts in the 2012-13 RSNO season, dubbed “American Festival”. They featured most of the works on the two discs, though in separate programmes: Harmonielehre was paired with the Gershwin piano concerto, for example, with Jon Kimura Parker rather than Xiayin Wang. I listened to both discs as a pair because, for me, they bear memories of the concerts, but they both work brilliantly on their own and I found them revelatory, exhilarating and immensely enjoyable.
 
For me the real revelation of the two concerts was a deeper immersion in the music of John Adams, whose work I had known slightly beforehand but who I came to admire much more profoundly after those concerts; all the more so after hearing this disc.
 
Harmonielehre knocked me sideways the first time I heard it, and in my review of that concert I went so far as to call it a “pulverising masterpiece”, something I haven’t changed my mind about. It’s a brilliant work, and an important one for the composer himself, who wrote it having come out of a profound period of writer’s block. In it he seems to face up to the legacy of Schoenberg - the title comes from that composer’s 1911 theoretical text - and to move beyond parodying it to engage with his significance more deeply.
 
The only other performance of Harmonielehre I’d come across on disc was the recent one from Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco, but already I would rank this one higher on both a performance and a technical level. The sheer scale of the RSNO playing here is extraordinary, from those gigantic repeated chords that open the work through to the blazing peroration that ends it. It’s the subtlety and versatility of the orchestra’s approach that is most impressive, though. Once that thumping opening has subsided they give way to playing of such twinkling, fluttering contrast that is at once beautiful and disconcerting. At the six-minute mark, when Adams’ grand, lyrical string theme enters, you are tempted to lie back and wallow in the quality of the texture that the music provides … and thank God for the Chandos engineers who made it all possible. The violins’ subsequent meanderings seem to head for the heavens, and the transition into the jangling busyness that ends the movement is masterful. It isn’t just the quality of the playing that is impressive but also the quality of the recorded sound which is exceptional, even by Chandos standards. The big climaxes sound great, but even more impressive is the transparency that they manage to evoke for the interior textures, so that everything from the piccolo solo to the vast battery of percussion comes across clear as a bell … sometimes literally. That’s especially important in the twinkling, sparkling world of the last movement, depicting Adams’ dream of his daughter floating among the heavenly bodies of the night sky. It’s a magical, dreamy soundscape, that revs itself up towards a powerfully driven conclusion that comes into much sharper focus as the final pages kick in. The second movement, The Anfortas Wound, has a very different feel to it, much more experimental and questioning, a bit like the role that Neptune plays in Holst’s Planets, and it is here that Adams comes closest to the atonal world of Schoenberg that previously he seemed to be doing his best to avoid. Nevertheless, the trumpet solo that bears the brunt of the music, and which leads into the anguished climax, is well played and brilliantly integrated into the orchestral texture.
 
I find the angular jabbing of Doctor Atomic a little less appealing, and the Symphony itself doesn’t hang together as well as does Harmonielehre which was, after all, written specifically for the concert hall whereas Doctor Atomic is put together from Adams’ opera. The orchestral texture is every bit as impressive, though. The horn solo at the mid-point of the second movement is extraordinary, as is the trumpet in the finale, and Adams’ trademark rhythmic pulses that dominate the final movement come across very well, precise and biting without becoming too insistent. The clockwork mania of Short Ride goes very well and makes for a fun but strong filler. It’s a shame that the disc is let down by such a terrible cover, though. Who on earth thought that this would encourage people to buy it?
 
That quibble aside, this and the piano concerto disc provide an interesting and potentially important memento of Oundjian’s first year with the RSNO. More than that we get really excellent performances worthy to stand comparison with any others.
 
Simon Thompson 

Previous review: Steve Arloff


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