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John ADAMS (b. 1947)
American Berserk
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 (violins)
Jens Brockman (viola)
Michael Hablitzel (cello)
Holger Groschopp, Majella Stockhausen (piano)
rec. 2017, Erholungshaus Leverkusen der Beyer, Germany
Reviewed in CD

As John Adams’s music enters the general repertory, we increasingly have a choice of versions for some of his works. Here we have a group of chamber works, expertly played by a team from this side of the pond. Even so, ther artists seem completely at home with music which Adams himself says is created ‘out of the compost of American life’.

We begin with John’s Book of Alleged Dances. This is a set of ten dances for string quartet, which can be played in any order. A complicating factor is that six of them require the use of a pre-recorded CD with percussive rhythms, realized by the composer on a prepared piano. A copy of this comes with the set of parts. The live players have to synchronise with this disc –it must be quite a challenge. The ten pieces have names, so Adams can indulge his penchant for jokey titles, such as Dogjam, Alligator Escalator, Toot Nipple and Stubble Crotchet. However, given their little bearing on the actual music, they can be ignored. The dances themselves are delightful: varied and playful, with evocations of, rather examples of, actual dances such as the tango and the habanera. There are also examples of Adams’s long singing line on the violin or cello.

There follow two solo piano pieces. China Gates is one of Adams’s earliest works, very much in the minimalist style developed by Steve Reich and Philip Glass. It is gentle and hypnotic. American Berserk is very different: it sounds like one of the Bartók Mikrokosmos studies reworked in Ligeti’s virtuoso style with conflicting rhythmic patterns superimposed. (Adams says it was influenced by Conlon Nancarrow’s player-piano studies.) This was written for Garrick Ohlsson, but he has not so far recorded it himself.

Road Movies, which follows, is a three-movement work for violin and piano. Road movies are films whose story takes place during a road trip, with an underlying theme of freedom and self-discovery. In fact, this work is really a violin sonata, though Adams would disdain such a conventional description. Two fast movements surround a dreamy slow movement, for which the violin has its G string lowered to F. The two fast movements are both of the nature of a toccata; the piano leads in the first and the violin in the third. The work struck me as being quite like Stravinsky’s piano sonata, in both structure and mood, and incidentally, not at all like his Duo Concertant for violin and piano, which one might have expected.

Finally, Hallelujah Junction for two pianos is another rather Stravinskian work. Constant metamorphosis of the opening figure is gradually decomposed then replaced by a singing line over a flowing accompaniment, before returning to something more like the opening but with more expressive harmonies. The name comes from a small town at the junction of two roads near the California-Nevada border, and also near where Adams has a small cabin.

All these are good works, and they receive enthusiastic and committed performances from the German team. The string players are all members of the Wuppertal Symphony Orchestra but do not seem to be a formal quartet. In fact, Liviu Neagu-Gruber, who also plays in Road Movies, leads his own different quartet. This may account for the fact that there are marginal imprecisions in John’s Book, particularly when compared to the Kronos Quartet version. The pianist Holger Groschopp is a contemporary music specialist; he is joined in Hallelujah Junction by Majella Stockhausen, daughter of the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, and another contemporary music specialist. I was listening on two-channel stereo, and found the recording fine, but this is actually a SACD, and there is a bonus track I could not play, noted as a 3D trailer for the volume setting of the 3D binaural version. There are good notes in German and English, and the disc comes in a smart gateleg sleeve without a jewel case.

I should explain that this disc owes its existence to the British sculptor Tony Cragg, whose work I admire a good deal. He lives in Wuppertal, and he created the Sculpture Park Waldfrieden together with its contemporary music programme. What an enterprising and public-spirited thing to do!

No other recording has precisely this programme. The superb version of John’s Book by the Kronos Quartet, for whom it was written, is coupled with Adams’s clarinet concerto Gnarly Buttons on a disc from Adams’s long-term champions, Nonesuch. The three piano works come on a useful Naxos CD by Ralph van Raat, and he adds Phrygian Gates, the companion to China Gates, written at around the same time (review ~ review). But you can also get all four of the piano works and Road Movies on another Nonesuch disc (review). However, if the present programme suits, this is an excellent version to have.

Stephen Barber
Previous review: Dominy Clements

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