John ADAMS (b. 1947)
John’s Book of Alleged Dances (1994) [33:29]
China Gates (1977) [4:11]
American Berserk (2001) [6:31]
Road Movies (1995) [16:21]
Hallelujah Junction (1998) [16:26]
Liviu Neagu-Gruber, Axel Hess (violin)
Jens Brockman (viola)
Michael Hablitzel (cello)
Holger Groschopp, Majella Stockhausen (piano)
rec. 2017, Erholungshaus Leverkusen der Beyer
Reviewed in CD and 3D SACD stereo. CRAGG FOUNDATION CF003 SACD [77:08]
This might not be the kind of release you are likely to find in plentiful supplies via mainstream outlets, but its pedigree in terms of engineering can be traced to Cybele, whose binaural recording technique has been used for one of the SACD layers of this disc. If you don’t fancy the qualities of the headphone orientated artificial-head technique you can listen in conventional stereo on the CD or 2D SACD layers. There is a photo of the quartet showing the set-up for this recording of John’s Book of Alleged Dances in which the microphone placements can be seen quite clearly, and I was reassured to see the on-stage speakers used for the soundtrack are the same as the ones I use at home.
John’s Book of Alleged Dances is a suite of ten movements for string quartet, of which six are played with a rhythmic backing track made on a prepared piano. I last came across John’s Book of Alleged Dances on (review) with Angèle Dubeau and La Pietà on the Analekta label, but as this only includes six of the ten movements that make up the complete work this sort-of amounts to a disqualification when it comes to direct comparisons, though the composer states that the movements can be played in any order, and presumably therefore also not strictly as an entire cycle. It has to be said that La Pietà is a good deal more convincing than the present recording, with higher all-round energy, groovier rhythm, tighter articulation and better intonation. The backing tracks are arguably a little better balanced in the more recent recording, but the more artificial Analekta sound differentiates more between the sound of the quartet and the soundtrack, making it easier for the ear to follow both. The quartet in the present recording is good enough on its own terms, struggling a little here and there at the extremes of range demanded for instance in Pavane: She’s So Fine but perfectly acceptable in isolation and in terms of sound quality a nice concert-hall delivery of the strings plus soundtrack effect. It’s only when you hear the jaw-dropping results from something like the Kronos Quartet on the Nonesuch label that you wish for more grit in the playing and a more integrated single-unit quartet quality.
With its gamelan-like sonorities, China Gates is one of John Adams’ classic early minimalist pieces, and played very nicely here by Holger Groschopp. He is quite a bit faster than Ralph van Raat on the Naxos label (review) and is therefore less meditative in effect, but I can also appreciate a non-lingering version. Naxos 8.559285 is also my reference for the remaining piano works on this programme. American Berserk is described by Groschopp as “an out-of-control jukebox that throws major and minor keys around” in his booklet notes, and this is a performance that delivers in every essential aspect of this wild pianistic ride. Timings between this and van Raat’s are as close as to make no difference, and while the latter is perhaps a little more in tune with the jazz-inflected left-hand of the piece I’d be happy to live with either. Holger Groschopp is joined by Majella Stockhausen, daughter of Karlheinz, in Hallelujah Junction, a fine work for two pianos in which “the ghost of Conlon Nancarrow ‘goes head to head with a Nevada cathouse pianola.’” Ralph van Raat and Maarten van Veen are recorded more distantly, though still with a recognisable left-right relationship between the instruments. Groschopp and Stockhausen are brought up nice and close to the listener, and the division between left and right in the upper registers of the pianos and the ‘vertical’ qualities in the recording in 3D stereo over headphones is a real treat. A little more bass oomph in the sound from the more distant right-hand piano would have been welcome in this listening mode, but honours are more equal on the CD layer, the microphone settings of which take us a few steps back from the instruments to give a more concert perspective. These are the kind of compromises to be found and dealt with when it comes to specialist recording techniques, but I find it fascinating to have the choice.
Road Movies for violin and piano has a fast-slow-fast pattern of movements, the outer movements full of ostinato drive, the central movement descriptive of ‘a solitary figure in an empty desert landscape.’ This is one case in which I can declare a preference for Liviu Neagu-Gruber over Angèle Dubeau, whose more aggressive tone can become wearing after a while. The performance here is eloquent and energetic, the atmosphere of the work’s soft centre nicely poised, the outer movements sparkling without being too hard-driven.
Recordings from this source owe their existence to British sculptor Tony Cragg, who founded the Sculpture Park Waldfrieden, and added a provision that the park should have its own programme for contemporary music. As such this and other enterprising releases from this source deserve our support, and as a nicely produced document full of glossy colour this is classy object and a highly entertaining recording to have around. If I’m a little strict on its absolute qualities when compared to alternative recordings then that is only me doing my duty as an honest reviewer. John Adams will always give plenty of entertainment, and if you are not looking for anything particularly profound then his well-crafted works will always be a good entry level to a realisation that – if stereotypical perceptions are being followed – contemporary music need not be indigestible aural torture.