John Adams Orchestral Works

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John Adams Orchestral WorksJohn Adams Orchestral Works

ADAMS Harmonielehre; The Chairman Dances; Tromba Lontana; Short Ride in a Fast Machine

  • Harmonielehre
  • (The) Chairman Dances
  • Tromba Lontana
  • Short Ride in a Fast Machine

''Those pounding E minor chords are like a grinding of gears,'' says John Adams of Harmonielehre's violent, gunshot opening. Scored for a huge orchestra and structured in three contrasted sections, Harmonielehre is probably the nearest thing on offer to a minimalist symphony, and for that reason alone it could well appeal beyond the elite coterie of minimalist-fanciers. Schoenberg dedicated his work of the same name (a famous textbook, Vienna: 1911) to Mahler, and the reference draws full circle at 8'32'' into Adams's ''The Amfortas Wound'' (Harmonielehre's second movement), where eruptive chords and screeching high trumpets declaim Mahler's Tenth loud and clear. A few minutes later (11'30''), tubas, trombones and timpani are so blatantly redolent of Mahler's Ninth that one almost feels cheated at not encountering the symphony's ominous four-note timpani motif. Yet Adams has said himself that ''what comes through is not, say 'Mahler', but rather John Adams's personal experience of Mahler'', a claim that also covers various other influences, including Reich and Sibelius. The quotations, by the way, are taken from the booklet for Simon Rattle's only rival, a 1985 Elektra Nonesuch recording by Edo de Waart and the San Francisco Symphony; the leaner, tighter and more intimately voiced of these two performances, captured in relatively close-set sound.
Rattle's recording has greater heft and dynamic range, a more informative balance and an especially vivid sense of aural perspective. The brass components of those opening chords (horns, trumpets, trombones and tubas) have enormous weight and presence, and the ringing marimbas thereafter, a brighter complexion. Half-way through Part One, the music broadens for an ardently lyrical central section and it is Rattle rather than de Waart who suggests further Mahlerian parallels (especially in the string writing). Adams's frequent requests for subtle tempo transitions (''Tempo gradually picks up'', ''Slightly faster... but still very flexible and fluid'' and so on) are subtly honoured by both conductors, although when it comes to slickly executed syncopations, de Waart undoubtedly has the edge. Harmonielehre was inspired by a dream vision of a massive tanker that suddenly took flight, displaying a ''beautiful brownish-orange oxide on the bottom part of its hull''; the 'setting' was just off San Francisco Bay Bridge, and here again it is de Waart who most effectively traces the American connection—especially the way Part Three's pulsing phrases relate to each other, very much in the manner of Reich's Music for Eighteen Musicians.
De Waart offers no fill-ups to Harmonielehre, but Rattle gives us three: the Copland-inspired Short Ride in a Fast Machine and Two Fanfares, and The Chairman Dances, a 'foxtrot for orchestra' that utilizes material from Adams's opera, Nixon in China. Searching out metaphors, I might suggest that de Waart's Mao wears jeans and sneakers, while Rattle's does his foxtrot in tweeds and a pair of brogues. Spirited though his approach undoubtedly is, Rattle is the more strait-laced: he emphasizes palpable influences (Stravinsky, in particular), whereas de Waart's performance is rather more idiomatically 'cool'.
Summing up, I'd commend Rattle's view of Adams to mainstream collectors who aren't yet sold on minimalism, but would suggest that de Waart is the more adroit at underlining Adams's upbeat rhythmic mobility. As to the music, Harmonielehre represents an ambitious and interesting phase that eventually led to greater things—including a stunning Chamber Symphony, which I hope Elektra Nonesuch, ECM or indeed EMI have fermenting somewhere in one of their creative pipelines.'

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