thoughtful, emotionally fleet and powerfully recorded
RECORDING OF THE MONTH
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John ADAMS (b.1947)
The John Adams Edition
Leila Josefowicz (violin)
Georg Nigl (baritone), Kelley O'Connor (mezzo-soprano), Tamara Mumford (mezzo-soprano), Peter Hoare (tenor), Daniel Bubeck (countertenor), Brian Cummings (countertenor), Nathan Medley (countertenor)
Rundfunkchor Berlin/Daniel Reuss (chorus master)
Berliner Philharmoniker/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 BERLINER PHILHARMONIKER RECORDINGS BPHR170141 [4 CDs: 298:04 + 2 Blu-ray]
John Adams has become a highly celebrated composer and I admire his music very much. His pieces are much-performed and virtually all his significant scores have been recorded at least once. It’s a measure of the high regard in which he is held that the Berliner Philharmoniker marked his 70th birthday (in February 2017) by making him their composer in residence during the 2016/17 season. This sumptuous set from the orchestra’s own label preserves performances from that residency. As Adams tells us in the bonus interview on the first of the Blu-ray video discs, the stimulus for the invitation came from Sir Simon Rattle: he and Rattle have been friends and musical collaborators for some thirty years.
In appraising this set I’ve chiefly watched the Blu-ray videos, though I’ve sampled the CDs to get a flavour of the sound quality. I’ll comment on the performances chiefly in the order in which they are placed on the Blu-rays with a couple of exceptions. It seems sensible to consider the performances of Harmonielehre and Scheherazade.2 together since these pieces formed one programme in September 2016, right at the start of the residency. Adams says in the interview with Sarah Willis, the orchestra’s British horn player, that he deliberately selected a relatively early work and one of his most recent pieces for this concert: Harmonielehre formed the first half.
Harmonielehre is a huge, ambitious piece. I’ve heard it a good number of times on CD and the radio but seeing a performance such as this greatly increases the impact of the work. John Adams is not a particularly demonstrative conductor: he seems to focus on clarity of beat, which is essential in music such as this, and on economical gestures. He gets results, though, because the present performance is taut and sharply focussed; furthermore, the often-teeming textures are clearly defined. The Berliner Philharmoniker plays with great rhythmic acuity and in the work’s more expansive, lyrical passages their depth of sonority is really impressive. The first movement displays quite a lot of evidence of the early influence of minimalism on Adams, though there’s a good deal of lyrical music too. In the second movement, however, we’re a long way from minimalism. The movement is an eloquent lament, marvellously shaped here by the composer and superbly played by the orchestra. Indeed, at the movement’s climax the music shows no little affinity with Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, not least through the presence of a sustained trumpet note throughout the climax. The last of the three movements opens with a long, yearning melody but in due course the pace picks up and incessant, chattering rhythms predominate. By the end of the work the mighty Berlin orchestra is in full cry and the result is tremendously exciting. I was gripped by this performance.
Scheherazade.2 is described as a Dramatic Symphony for violin and orchestra. The work was written for Leila Josefowicz who has championed Adams’ music and, indeed, contemporary music in general. She recorded it live in 2016 with David Robertson and the St Louis Symphony (Nonesuch 7559-79435-1). I bought the disc a few months back but I confess I haven’t really got to grips with the work yet. However, being able to see as well as hear this truly astonishing performance by Leila Josefowicz has advanced my understanding and appreciation of the piece. What’s astonishing about the performance is not just Miss Josefowicz’s jaw-dropping virtuosity or her prodigious feat in being able to play the hugely demanding solo part from memory. No, what really took my breath away is the extent to which she is inside the music. She visibly inhabits the piece; indeed, it would not be exaggerating to say that she is Scheherazade.
The work has four movements, each of which has a descriptive title. However, Adams makes it clear in a note accompanying the Nonesuch recording that there is no narrative plot as such; rather, the movements “follow a set of provocative images” and, as he explains to Sarah Willis, it’s a piece that’s about women being oppressed [in a variety of situations] and fighting back. The piece is not easy to assimilate; the harmonic language is often very gritty and the music varies between sensuous lyricism – chiefly in the solo part on several occasions – and vehement, even violent dramatic episodes. The orchestral scoring is enormously inventive and colourful, including an important part for a cimbalom, which adds an exotic timbre. I was completely gripped by the performance which is tautly directed by the composer and commandingly played by his soloist.
We’re on much more familiar territory with Short Ride in a Fast Machine which is conducted by Alan Gilbert. This is probably Adams’ best-known piece and with good reason. It’s an exhilarating showpiece for orchestra and here it gets a very fine performance. Gilbert is also on the rostrum for Lollapalooza. The inclusion of this short piece is appropriate since Adams wrote it for Simon Rattle to mark the conductor’s 40th birthday. It’s a fun piece, during the course of which much is made of a rhythmic figure which you get if you say the title word. To be honest, though, I don’t think it’s anything like as memorable a piece as Short Ride. City Noir was composed for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and its music director, Gustavo Dudamel. In fact, I believe it was premiered at the concert in which Dudamel made his debut as the LAPO’s music director. That recording, which I’ve not heard, was issued on both DVD and as a download by DG (see Brian Wilson’s Download News 2013/18 for details). There’s also a CD performance of the work, which I have, on which David Robertson again conducts the St Louis Symphony (Nonesuch 7559-79564-4). The work contains a crucial and virtuoso role for alto saxophone. On the Robertson disc and, I think, the aforementioned Dudamel performance the player is the American, Timothy McAllister. Here McAllister guests with the Berliner Philharmoniker.
The piece is something of a homage both to Los Angeles and to the American version of the film noir genre. It’s in three movements, the first two of which play without a break. As with so many of the pieces in this collection, the work is scored for a very substantial orchestra and, as elsewhere in the set, Adams is confirmed as a composer who can write most imaginatively and effectively for a large ensemble. There are many passages where the full orchestral panoply is used, and used to great effect, but what impresses me most are the many episodes where the music is subdued and nocturnal, especially in the second movement, ‘The Song is for You’. Here Adams shows himself a master of atmospheric, evocative scoring. There is a lot of jazz influence in the piece, accentuated not just through the contributions of the saxophone – a primus inter pares role within the orchestra – but also through the use of a drumkit within the percussion section and the occasions when the principal double bass player is required to play in jazz style. The performance is gripping and Dudamel is in his element. He conducts the many energetic sections with panache and a strong rhythmic drive but he’s no less successful in the sultry slower passages. Fine though the Robertson audio recording is, this is another instance where seeing the performance makes the work come much more vividly to life.
I’ve not yet seen Simon Rattle’s successor-in-waiting, Kirill Petrenko in action. I was delighted, therefore, to find him involved in this set conducting The Wound-Dresser. This is a piece I’ve long admired ever since I bought the premiere recording of the work on which Sanford Sylvan is the soloist and the composer conducts (Elektra Nonesuch 9 79218-2). Subsequently, I admired a further recording by Nathan Gunn (review). For this piece Adams chose Walt Whitman’s poem, ‘The Dresser’, from Drum Taps (1865), though he didn’t set the complete poem. In a superb essay on Adams’ music that’s part of the documentation for this set Alex Ross mentions that many thought at the time the work appeared that Adams was drawing a parallel between Whitman’s imagery of wounded soldiers from the Civil War and the AIDS epidemic. That may be correct. However, Sarah Cahill, the annotator for Adams’ own recording of the work, points out that at the time of composition Adams’ father was dying of Alzheimer’s disease “and his mother was devoting her life to vigilantly caring for him.”
Whatever the stimulus, it’s always seemed to me that The Wound-Dresser is one of Adams’ most profound and moving utterances, not least because of the restraint in the score. The piece is scored for a small orchestra and though there are one or two anguished outbursts, the music is mainly subdued in both volume and tone. The piece is, in effect, a reflective soliloquy for baritone and orchestra. Here the singer is the Austrian baritone, Georg Nigl. His voice is firm, well focussed and clear in tone so in many ways he’s very well suited to the music. Unfortunately, his English isn’t always ideally clear and I needed the subtitles. Petrenko conducts attentively and the orchestra displays great finesse. Overall this is a fine performance.
The remainder of the set is devoted to The Gospel According to the Other Mary. This is another of Adams’ collaborations with Peter Sellars. The work was co-commissioned by several organisations, one of which was the Los Angeles Philharmonic. They and Gustavo Dudamel unveiled the piece in May 2012 in a concert performance. The same forces gave the staged premiere in March 2013 at which time a recording was made (DG 479 2243). I bought those CDs when they came out but I must admit that I’ve never truly found my way into this work.
My main difficulty comes from Peter Sellars’ libretto and what I can only call the conceit behind it. In brief, this Passion Oratorio deals with the Gospel story of the raising of Lazarus (in Act I) and then the arrest, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ (in Act 2). Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha are the central characters and the Gospel narration is delivered chiefly by a trio of countertenors. The chorus comments on the action. Lazarus and his sisters are witnesses to and involved in the events of Act 2, even to the extent that Christ’s arrest is depicted as taking place not in Gethsemane but in their house. (I have no problem with that bit of dramatic licence.) My difficulty with the libretto is that Mary and Martha especially are depicted as Activists. Thus, for example, when the work opens, without preamble, Mary is in prison; she has been arrested during a drug bust and she explains her situation by singing lines from The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day. In Act 2 Martha sings more lines by Dorothy Day and through this text Martha is depicted as a labour activist, organising flying pickets of vineyards. Please! I find this attempt to link the Gospel story with modern day causes both tendentious and distracting. Before I’m criticised for being too conventional I should say in my defence that I found much to admire and provoke thought in Peter Sellars’ semi-staging of Bach’s Johannes-Passion which also added an element of political ‘edge’ to the Gospel story (review).
However, there is much that works well in the libretto. The long solo for Lazarus at the close of Act 1 is a setting of Primo Levi’s Passover. This is an ideal inclusion and Adams has set it wonderfully. I also thought the inclusion of Louise Erdrich’s The Savior in Act 2 was very apposite as was the same poet’s The Sacraments a little further on. So, there are pros and cons to Sellars’ libretto; I just wish he had been more subtle at times and hadn’t sought to ram a political agenda down the listener’s throat.
I have no reservations about the music itself. Adams is frequently inspired – the aforementioned Primo Levi setting is a prime example and the words and music bring forth exceptionally fine and nuanced singing from Peter Hoare. Much of the writing for Mary is also on a very high level of inspiration. Equally inspired is the orchestral scoring. Adams can be visceral in his use of the orchestra where the drama requires it but many passages are subtle and highly atmospheric – I think of the accompaniment to the Levi aria and also a great deal of the scoring in Act 2. The orchestral writing (and soft wordless choral singing) that illustrates the rolling away of the stone from Lazarus’ tomb is appropriately spooky.
The performance is absolutely superb. I’m sure it helps that with the exception of Peter Hoare all of the vocal soloists took the same roles in Gustavo Dudamel’s recording. That was made at the time of a staged production of the work and the stage experience in particular must have helped the singers in identifying with their roles. Kelley O'Connor is particularly immersed in her role and though it may be invidious to single out any one of the soloists I think she is absolutely outstanding. The three countertenors, who sing as a trio for the most part, must have an incredibly difficult task in pitching their harmonies. However, they are an experienced trio: not only did they sing for Dudamel but two of them - Daniel Bubeck and Brian Cummings – also sang in the countertenor trio in the premiere of El Niño (review) so they have considerable experience of performing Adams’ music.
The singing of the Rundfunkchor Berlin is magnificent. They are incisive and completely committed to the cause. As for the Berliner Philharmoniker, their playing is superb. They are able to unleash all the power that the composer could wish but even more impressive is the finesse that they bring to the many subdued, atmospheric passages. Sir Simon Rattle conducts with total belief in the score. He says in the booklet that he has always considered this work to be a masterpiece: he conducts it as such. With his famed ear for detail he’s ideal for this piece but he also encompasses the sweep and drama of the score. This performance and, indeed, all the other pieces in this set were greeted with acclamation by the Berlin audiences and it’s great to see such enthusiasm for a composer of our time.
I said that I’d not been able to get into this work properly from the Dudamel recording. That, I hasten to add, is no fault of the DG performance or presentation. However, as with one or two other works in this set seeing a performance has helped me enormously. Rattle and his forces have unlocked the score for me and I’ll now be able to go back to the Dudamel audio recording with greater confidence.
On the Blu-ray discs there are some valuable bonus features in the form of two filmed conversations. One is between Adams and Peter Sellars; in the other one Sarah Willis, a member of the orchestra, talks to John Adams – she comes across as a skilled and knowledgeable interviewer. There’s also an interesting documentary about John Adams’ time in residence with the orchestra.
As is usual with this label, the documentation, which is in Germans and English, is extensive. There’s a first-rate essay surveying Adams’ work by Alex Ross. Complete sung texts are provided and the thoroughness extends to detailing the orchestral scoring for each work. My only slight regret is that the programme notes on the individual works are not particularly extensive. I’m glad I had access to more detailed notes with individual CDs from other labels.
Previous sets from this label have featured extremely good camera work and crisp images. That’s the case here also. The sound is very fine. I did most of my review listening using the Blu-ray video (with the 2.0 PCM Stereo option) but I also did sufficient sampling of the CDs to establish that anyone using those as their means of experiencing these performances will get the benefit of first rate sound.
None of the scores included in this set were new to me but these terrific performances have made me appreciate the works all the more and in several cases, they’ve greatly expanded my understanding of the works. This is a very distinguished survey of some of John Adams’ finest concert works. It confirms him as a composer of genuine stature and, in my opinion, an inventive and fascinating master of writing for the modern symphony orchestra. These Berliner Philharmoniker sets aren’t cheap to buy but this set is a classic case of value being more important than price. If you admire the music of John Adams you must hear this superb set.
Contents CD 1 [80.17] Harmonielehre (1984/85) [42.05]
John Adams (conductor)
rec. Live 15-17 September 2016, Philharmonie, Berlin Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986) [4.12]
Alan Gilbert (conductor)
rec. Live 2-4 December 2016, Philharmonie, Berlin City Noir (2009) [34.13]
Gustavo Dudamel (conductor)
rec. Live 8-10 June 2017, Philharmonie, Berlin CD 2 [73.47] Lollapalooza (1995) [6.36]
Alan Gilbert (conductor)
rec. Live 2-4 December 2016, Philharmonie, Berlin Scheherazade.2 (2014/15) [48.09]
Leila Josefowicz (violin)
John Adams (conductor)
rec. Live 15-17 September 2016, Philharmonie, Berlin The Wound-Dresser (1988/89) [18.32]
Georg Nigl (baritone)
Kirill Petrenko (conductor)
rec. Live 22-23 March 2017, Philharmonie, Berlin CD 3 [77.52] The Gospel According to the Other Mary – Act 1 (2011/12) [77.52] CD 4 [66.08] The Gospel According to the Other Mary - Act 2 (2011/12) [66.08]
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
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)
rec. Live 26-28 January 2017, Philharmonie, Berlin Blu-ray 1
Concert recordings in high definition video Harmonielehre
Short Ride in a Fast Machine
John Adams in conversation with Sarah Willis [19.00] Blu-ray 2
Concert recordings in high definition video The Gospel According to the Other Mary
Documentary: 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
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