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John ADAMS (b.1947)
The John Adams Edition
Instrumental soloist: Leila Josefowicz (violin)
Vocal soloists: Georg Nigl (baritone), Kelley O'Connor (mezzo-soprano), Tamara Mumford Martha (mezzo-soprano), Peter Hoare Lazarus (tenor), Daniel Bubeck (countertenor), Brian Cummings (countertenor), Nathan Medley (countertenor)
Rundfunkchor Berlin/Daniel Reuss (chorus master)
Berliner Philharmoniker
Conductors: John Adams, Alan Gilbert, Gustavo Dudamel, Kirill Petrenko, Sir Simon Rattle
rec. 2016/17 Philharmonie, Berlin
Full English texts provided
4 CDs + 2 Blu-ray Live Concert Recordings & Documentary, Interviews in HD Video + High Resolution Audio Files for download

John Adams’ 70th birthday was in February 2017 and his creativity shows no sign of waning. His anniversary has been celebrated internationally with numerous concerts of his works. As recently as November 2017 Adams’ California Gold Rush Opera Girls of the Golden West to a libretto by director Peter Sellars was premiered at San Francisco Opera.

Adams has maintained his position for several decades as one of the most significant and captivating voices in contemporary music. Part of the generation of composers following in the wake of minimalists such as Steve Reich, Philip Glass and Terry Riley, Adams became the acceptable face of minimalism. “I was drawn to Minimalism because I’d never abandoned tonal harmony and, as one who grew up listening to jazz and rock, I never could imagine a music that didn’t have a beat.” Adams found his own successful brand of composition, by fusing traditional music heritage with minimalism, which was dramatic with the ability to affect the listener rather than being cold and emotionally inert.

During the 2016/2017 season, Adams was engaged by the Berliner Philharmoniker as its first composer in residence since Sir Simon Rattle’s 15 year tenure as chief conductor. On this deluxe set The John Adams Edition, Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings has made available recordings of 7 works it performed live at Philharmonie, Berlin in 2016/17 during Adams’ residency with the Philharmoniker. These are not première recordings of the scores but recordings of the first performances Berliner Philharmoniker gave of each of the 7 works except for Short Ride in a Fast Machine which it first performed in 2008.

This hardcover edition containing recordings of almost 5 hours of music comprises of:
- 4 audio CDs as well as 2 Blu-ray concert recordings in high definition video.
- a personal download code for high resolution audio files of the entire album (24-bit up to 192 kHz).
- a 7-day ticket for the Digital Concert Hall (which is the Berliner Philharmoniker’s video streaming service).
- included on the 2 Blu-rays: 2 interviews: ‘John Adams in conversation with Sara Willis’ and ‘John Adams in conversation with Peter Sellars’ and a 45 minute documentary ‘Short Rides with John Adams’.
- the 108 page integral booklet in German and English contains helpful information on each work together with a foreword by Sir Simon Rattle, a synopsis on The Gospel According to the Other Mary, the English texts to both The Wound-Dresser and The Gospel According to the Other Mary, an essay ‘Multifarious Music – The Composer John Adams’ by Alex Ross, a biography of John Adams and a list of Berlin Philharmoniker players. There is also a short feature on Wolfgang Tillmans who has provided both the design of The John Adams Edition and the extensive number of photographs it contains.

The Berliner Philharmoniker first performed an Adams work in 2001 but it’s most surprising, given the 30 year friendship between Rattle and Adams, that 5 of these 7 works had to wait until the 2016/2017 season for a performance by the orchestra. The exception Short Ride in a Fast Machine was first played in 2008 (as mentioned earlier) while Scheherazade.2 a relatively recent work was first performed by the orchestra in 2016 the year after its composition. Adams has appeared at Philharmonie, Berlin prior to his year with Berliner Philharmoniker as composer in residence. From Musikfest Berlin 2012 I have fond memories of reporting a concert performance at Philharmonie with Adams conducting his own opera Nixon in China given by the visiting BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Orchestra. In September at Musikfest Berlin 2016 Adams, for his conducting debut with Berliner Philharmoniker at Philharmonie, programmed Harmonielehre one of his earliest orchestral works and Scheherazade.2 one of his newest compositions. I reported from this Adams debut concert recorded here, although, I notice the recording date of Scheherazade.2 is given in the booklet as December 2016.
A symphony in all but name Harmonielehre is a substantial three movement work for large orchestra lasting forty minutes. Composed in 1984/85 Adams took his title from Arnold Schoenberg’s treatise Harmonielehre (Harmony Lesson). It was Edo de Waart who conducted the work’s première in 1985 at San Francisco. Much requested in the concert hall it’s an impressive score of minimalistic techniques combined with late-Romantic expression a product of his late 30s. Especially notable is the untitled opening movement which opens thunderously, with pounding E minor chords repeated 39 times, inspired by a dream Adams had of a giant oil tanker in San Francisco Bay which launched into the sky like a rocket. Movement two The Anfortas Wound stimulated by Carl Jung’s views on the King from the Arthurian grail legend who’s wound will not heal. The final movement Meister Eckhardt and Quackie based on a dream Adams had of his daughter Emily then nicknamed Quackie sitting on the shoulders of the German mediaeval mystic Meister Eckhardt with both “hovering among the heavenly bodies like figures painted on the high ceilings of old cathedrals.” Conducting with obvious enthusiasm and rock steady pulse Adams creates a near dreamlike world full of tremendous vibrancy that draws the listener in. Clearly relishing every minute of Harmonielehre the players have the bit between their teeth throughout.

A fanfare for large orchestra Adams’ best known work Short Ride in a Fast Machine from 1986 was inspired by a road trip in his brother-in-law’s Lamborghini. At just over 4 minutes to perform it’s a perfect encore piece and has become one of the most performed orchestral works. Under conductor Alan Gilbert the orchestra gives a performance that is both dynamic and thrilling.

Composed in 2009 City Noir for orchestra is a considerable three movement score playing for over 34 minutes. According to Adams “City Noir is a symphony inspired by the peculiar ambience and mood of Los Angeles ‘noir’ films, especially those produced in the late 40s and early 50s. My music is an homage not necessarily to the film music of that period but rather to the overall aesthetic of the era.” One distinctly senses that Adams is exploring the shadowy, seedy side of Los Angeles at night. With its “dark sensual tonal language” this jazz influenced score containing several challenging solos, including notable ones for alto saxophone and trumpet, is a virtuoso display piece for orchestra. It was the conductor here Gustavo Dudamel who gave the première of the score with Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009. Overall the performance under the charismatic Dudamel vividly portrays intoxicating sensations of a vibrant city that never sleeps. Opening with The City and its Double the movement with the alto saxophone prominent attempts to represent “the contradictory nature of a city in sound.” The central movement The Song is for You is an imaginative expression of jazz inspired orchestral music. This is writing that runs from a sultry, placid sometimes bluesy character to the exotic and perfumed. In Boulevard Night the finale a restrained trumpet solo plays against the orchestra with the thicker, shadowy textures that underpin the writing.

Adams composed Lollapalooza in 1995 as a 40th birthday present for Simon Rattle who premièred the score in 1995 with the CBSO at Birmingham, England. Lasting 6½ minutes Adams based the piece on the rhythm of the word Lollapalooza a term of indeterminate etymology suggesting to me something extra-large and often brash. The five-note motif is derived from the number of syllables and emphasis of the title. Under the assured direction of Alan Gilbert the Berliner Philharmoniker plays with all the effortless virtuosity one has come to expect.
Subtitled a Dramatic Symphony for violin and orchestra - Scheherazade.2 nods distinctly in the direction of Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic poem Scheherazade. Scheherazade.2 was composed for violinist Leila Josefowicz who was soloist when Alan Gilbert conducted the première of the score in 2015 at New York. Adams has cast the work in 4 movements each given a descriptive title: Tale of the Wise Young Women; A Long Desire (Love Scene); Scheherazade and the Men with Beards and finally Escape, Flight, Sanctuary. Prior to conducting this 2016 performance at Philharmonie, I recall Adams taking the microphone and explaining to the audience that he had been inspired to write the work after visiting an exhibition in the Museum of the Arab World, Paris detailing the Arabian Nights and the legend of Scheherazade. Adams reflected on the oppression and abuse of women in those tales and how we continue to see so many of those brutal images in the news today in Middle East. In fact, this short talk can be seen on the video of the performance. A main feature throughout the work is the stormy quality of the orchestral music, often in bursts, which contrast repeatedly with light, calm and shimmering writing always mindful of not overpowering the soloist. Highly committed Josefowicz takes the demanding solo part in her stride playing passionately conveying a mainly yearning rather pleading quality enabling empathy with the plight of the heroine queen Scheherazade. Although not without its longueurs the score, taking 48 minutes here to perform, does contain amounts of drama and excitement. Towards the conclusion there is a special hymn-like quality on the strings which feels like redemption before quietly decaying away to nothing. Under Adams’ baton the exceptional Berliner Philharmoniker with its usual absorbing unity clearly relishes playing something new and different, and I especially enjoyed hearing the distinctive contribution of the cimbalom, a hammered dulcimer.

In 1989 Adams completed The Wound-Dresser for baritone and orchestra a setting of text from Walt Whitman’s 1865 Civil War poetry collection Drum Taps. The same year the score was introduced by baritone Sanford Sylvan and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra under the composer. In the text Adams focuses on the section concerning Whitman’s recollection of treating a suffering soldier whilst serving as a medical volunteer during the American Civil War. Kirill Petrenko (chief conductor elect of the Berliner Philharmoniker) convincingly conveys the affecting and intimate character of the writing providing subtle orchestral colourings. Scored for a comparatively small orchestra some light and ethereal background sounds are provided by a synthesizer. In this reflective and affecting lamentation baritone Georg Nigl is in fine form, clear, and responsive, conveying profound understanding of the text. There are some eloquently played solos from the concertmaster and a most effective extended part where the baritone is accompanied by a striking solo trumpet together with a delightful passage for solo flute.
A passion oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary is based on the last few weeks of the life of Jesus including the crucifixion from the perspective of biblical figures Mary Magdalene, her lesser known sister Martha and brother Lazarus. In 2 acts the libretto by Adams’ regular collaborator, theatre director Peter Sellars draws on text from both Old and New Testament of the Bible interweaving writings from Rosario Castellanos, Rubén Darío, Dorothy Day, Louise Erdrich, June Jordan, Primo Levi and Hildegard of Bingen. It was Gustavo Dudamel who conducted the premières of both the concert version and staged versions at Los Angeles in 2012 and 2013 respectively. The oratorio comprises of arias, large choruses and numerous orchestral interludes and is an emotionally expressive work brimming with anger, compassion, reflection and considerable inspiration. Despite occasional longueurs the work still makes quite an impact. Here the Berliner Philharmoniker under Sir Simon Rattle is soon attuned to Adams’ distinctive sound world from barely audible softness to the dense and rousing. For the women’s parts Adams requires a low voice and performing here are mezzo-sopranos Kelley O'Connor and Tamara Mumford who know the work intimately having premièred both the concert and staged versions. O'Connor gives a gripping portrayal as Mary Magdalene with deep understanding and Mumford as Martha displays her rich tone to splendid effect. In the role of Lazarus Peter Hoare’s bright tenor excels with crystal clear diction, strong projection and varied expression. All appeared at the Los Angeles premières countertenors Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Nathan Medley combining as the evangelist sound in exquisite form. Hard to fault is the Rundfunkchor Berlin clearly well prepared by chorus master Daniel Reuss singing with clean focus and perception, totally committed.

Throughout the 7 concert performances technical proficiency is of the highest order, seamless cohesion combined with profoundly dedicated artistry make the Berliner Philharmoniker an irresistible exponent of Adams’ music. There is a remarkable consistency of quality from the engineering team at Philharmonie that has provided vividly defined and immediate sound with ideal balance. The video direction of each of the concerts, the two interviews ‘John Adams in conversation with Sara Willis’ and ‘John Adams in conversation with Peter Sellars’, and the fascinating documentary ‘Short Rides with John Adams’ have been produced to a level of picture and sound quality where it is difficult to find any issue worth mentioning. There is some interesting information contained on the interviews and documentary, however, for some time it’s been a source of surprise that professional interviewers are not engaged. In the booklet full English texts to both The Wound-Dresser and The Gospel According to the Other Mary are provided. There is a Spanish and Latin passage in The Gospel According to the Other Mary and for both English translations are provided too. The main feedback I have received concerns the inclusion of Blu-rays which surely deters the much greater number of DVD users from purchasing the set. There are 2 Adams scores that I would have liked the Berliner Philharmoniker to have performed and recorded notably the striking Harmonium for chorus and orchestra and Absolute Jest for string quartet and orchestra, a brilliant work I saw memorably performed under Michael Tilson Thomas at Philharmonie part of Musikfest Berlin 2015.

Creative and fascinating music of invigorating energy performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker The John Adams Edition is an inspiring collection of some of Adams’ finest music.

Michael Cookson

CD 1 [80.17]
1-3. Harmonielehre (1984/85) [42.05]
John Adams (conductor)
rec. Live 15-17 September 2016, Philharmonie, Berlin
4. Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986) [4.12]
Alan Gilbert (conductor)
rec. Live 2-4 December 2016, Philharmonie, Berlin
5-7. City Noir (2009) [34.13]
Gustavo Dudamel (conductor)
rec. Live 8-10 June 2017, Philharmonie, Berlin
CD 2 [73.47]
1. Lollapalooza (1995) [6.36]
Alan Gilbert (conductor)
rec. Live 2-4 December 2016, Philharmonie, Berlin
2-5. Scheherazade.2 (2014/15) [48.09]
Leila Josefowicz (violin)
John Adams (conductor)
rec. Live 15-17 September 2016, Philharmonie, Berlin (given as 15-17 December 2016 in booklet notes)
6. The Wound-Dresser (1988/89) [18.32]
Kirill Petrenko (conductor)
Georg Nigl, baritone
rec. Live 22-23 March 2017, Philharmonie, Berlin
CD 3 [77.52]
1-20. The Gospel According to the Other Mary – Act 1 (2011/12) [77.52]
CD 4 [66.08]
1-18. The Gospel According to the Other Mary - Act 2 (2011/12) [66.08]
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)
Kelley O'Connor (Mary Magdalene) mezzo-soprano
Tamara Mumford (Martha, her sister) contralto
Peter Hoare (Lazarus, their brother) tenor
Daniel Bubeck, countertenor
Brian Cummings, countertenor
Nathan Medley, countertenor
Rundfunkchor Berlin/Daniel Reuss, chorus master
rec. Live 26-28 January 2017, Philharmonie, Berlin
Blu-ray 1
Concert recordings in high definition video
Short Ride in a Fast Machine
City Noir
The Wound-Dresser
Bonus material:
John Adams in conversation with Sara Willis [19.00]
Blu-ray 2
Concert recordings in high definition video
The Gospel According to the Other Mary
Short Rides with John Adams [45.00]
Bonus material
John Adams in conversation with Peter Sellars [17.00]
Picture Full HD 1080 / 60i – 16:9
Sound 2.0 PCM Stereo 24bit/48 kHz & 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio 24bit/48 kHz
Region Code: ABC (worldwide)
Download Code
Personal code for High Resolution Audio Files of the entire album
24bit - up to 192 kHz
Integral Booklet
108 pages - Essays in English & German
Digital Concert Hall
7 day ticket for the Berliner Philharmoniker's video streaming service
Hardcover Edition
24.5 x 15.5 x 3.6 cm: 700g (approx)



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