John Adams Chamber Symphony; Grand Pianola Music

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adams chamber symphony

ADAMS Chamber Symphony; Grand Pianola Music

  • Chamber Symphony
  • Grand Pianola Music

A loud bash on an old tin can, and they're off—yelping, tapping, chattering, chasing to and fro, like a barn-yard full of loopy professors. And to think that the prime mover for John Adams's madcap Chamber Symphony (1992) was its ''eponymous predecessor'', Schoenberg's Op. 9. Even the instrumentation is similar, save that Adams has added synthesizer, jazz-style percussion, trumpet and trombone. The earlier parts of ''Mongrel Airs'' (the work's first movement) have the brass playing a slow-moving legato while everyone else bops along like an inebriated troop of Stravinskian soldiers. It's a raw piece (Adams's minimal directions include ''coarse'', ''intense'', ''staccatissimo!''), with the merest suggestion of repose in the central ''Aria with Walking Brass'' (initially sounding like a send-up of Bruckner's Fifth) and a ''Roadrunner'' finale that includes a manic violin cadenza followed by an ingenious passage (4'36'') where synthesizer, bass clarinet, bassoon and horn crank up for the panic-stricken home straight.
Harmonically astringent (that much it certainly does have in common with Schoenberg), ceaselessly inventive and rhythmically ingenious, the Chamber Symphony was inspired in part by ''the hyperactive, insistently aggressive and acrobatic scores'' for cartoons (''good cartoons, old ones from the 50s'') that Adams's young son was watching at the time. And it's that element of burlesque, coupled with a terser, drier, more ruthlessly polyphonic language that Adams had used previously that lends the work its striking character. Granted, it might not be exactly rich in tunes (this is no New Age musical roller-coaster), but the Chamber Symphony remains maddeningly moreish, a dazzling, high-speed comedy where all the characters are temporarily on holiday from their more serious selves.
In complete contrast, Adams's far gentler Grand Pianola Music (written in 1971, and scored for two pianos, winds, brass and percussion) provides a relatively 'easy' listen, what with its smooth-driving motor rhythms, sensual female voices, warming waves of brass tone and occasional bouts of thumping excitement. ''I wrote the piece not to epater les bourgeoisie,'' writes Adams with admirable frankness, ''but rather for the sheer pleasure of hearing certain musical 'signals'—one could even call them cliches—piled up against one another.'' Cliches certainly, especially the 'big tune' that crowns the third section, ''On the Dominant Divide'' and which is probably most effective when, towards the end of the work, it slims down to basic harmonic constituents. Grand Pianola Music is a sort of aural truck ride, with smooth tarmac, plenty of scenic incident, a glowing sunset on the far horizon and a closing cadence that recalls—rather unexpectedly—Sibelius. An earlier, more aggressively engineered version under Ransom Wilson (EMI, 9/85—nla) packed a surer wallop, but Adams's own recording has greater delicacy, a more musical balance and wears a sunnier countenance. I played it recently at a Gramophone Society evening to great effect and suspect that its potential audience catchment is pretty wide.
Both performances serve their respective works well, although having heard a tape of the Schoenberg Ensemble's premiere performance of the Chamber Symphony (January 1993), I'd like to think that they might at some time offer us a punchier option to the composer's own, good though that is. The recordings are superb.'

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