The John Adams Edition
Like its politics, the buffeting turbulence of culture in the United States today is difficult to describe to anyone who hasn’t experienced it first-hand. The unruly chorus of contending and contentious voices is of course a given. But of the musicians I know, the one who comes closest to mirroring the often baffling complexities and contradictions of the contemporary American condition is John Adams. Moreover, he’s been doing it for decades with a kind of determined, fearless joy.
Adams, a born-and-bred New Englander who early on put down deep roots in California, turned 70 last year. During 2016 17 he was named the Berlin Philharmonic’s composer-in-residence and this handsomely packaged release represents the fruits of that collaboration. The Philharmonic with various soloists present stunning performances of seven pieces composed by Adams between 1985 and 2015, under five distinguished conductors including the composer. All were recorded live at the Berlin Philharmonie and may be viewed as well as heard on two sumptuously produced Blu-ray discs.
In the classic 1966 essay ‘Against Interpretation’, the late Susan Sontag defended appreciation of what she called the art object’s ‘sensuous surface’. It is precisely the multifaceted, gem-like surfaces of the mighty Harmonielehre that make it the most recorded of Adams’s large-scale orchestral works. It may also be the earliest work to cement his place among the great orchestrators, that select company dating back to Berlioz, Liszt, Strauss and Mahler. But beyond its magisterial exploration of orchestral space, density, depth and timbre, Harmonielehre is a visionary work of tremendous emotional range and power. The Berliners acquit themselves magnificently in a virtuoso performance under Adams’s baton, who here records the piece for the first time. Purity of sound, rhythmic precision and attention to detail make this a recording quite unlike any other to date. If there’s no experience quite like hearing Harmonielehre live in a hall, this is certainly a very close second, due in no small measure to the brilliant sound engineering.
Adams also conducts the most recent work in the set, Scheherazade.2, with the incomparable Leila Josefowicz, for whom it was composed, as violin soloist. Subtitled a ‘dramatic symphony’, à la Berlioz, this contemporary reimagining of the storyteller of the Arabian Nights as an empowered, strong, 21st-century woman in conflict with a cruelly oppressive and doctrinaire male establishment, for all its sensual allure, is gripping. Throughout the symphony’s four movements Josefowicz, Adams and the Berliners achieve an almost symbiotic singularity of will. Alan Gilbert takes the podium for two smaller-scale works, Short Ride in a Fast Machine and Lollapalooza, both of which burst with energy and colour.
Like the contemporary films Chinatown and LA Confidential, Adams’s City noir is a contemporary evocation of a specific Hollywood ethos from the late 1940s and early ’50s, typified by Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, Laura and the novels of Philip Marlowe and Raymond Chandler. Appropriately, it’s conducted here by Gustavo Dudamel, who led the 2009 premiere at Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Hall. City noir, perhaps more than any other Adams piece, qualifies as a veritable concerto for orchestra. In addition to the alto saxophone solo, played here brilliantly by Timothy McAllister, who also played the premiere, solo parts for trumpet, trombone, horn, viola and double bass are superlatively realised in this performance. The orchestra as a whole negotiates the score’s highly complex jazz idiom with aplomb, capturing its sultry atmosphere with naturalness and ease.
If the set has one element which is perhaps not up to the high standards of the rest, it is the setting of Whitman’s The Wound-Dresser. Kirill Petrenko conducts this painfully restrained elegy with taste and discretion. Georg Nigl, on the other hand, despite the richness of his velvet baritone, somehow doesn’t quite plumb the depths of Whitman’s text. And perhaps no non-native English speaker could. Sanford Sylvan, for whom The Wound-Dresser was written and who has recorded it twice, has raised the expressive bar dizzyingly high.
By far the largest piece in the set is the Passion oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary. All the soloists who sang the premiere in Los Angeles under Dudamel in 2012 and recorded it the next year recreate their characterisations here, the sole exception being the role of Lazarus, originally sung by Russell Thomas but here portrayed compellingly by the British tenor Peter Hoare. Maintaining tension and momentum during this two and a half-hour musical journey is a challenge. Simon Rattle steers a course that is at once devout and deeply serious, without ever becoming ponderous. Living with The Gospel for half a decade has deepened the soloists’ comfort with the score. So, though perhaps not qualitatively superior to the original recording, this performance exhibits greater cohesion and clarity. The luxuriously lifelike sound the engineers have so artfully captured here, and indeed throughout the entire set, gives Berlin the edge. This is a treat not to be missed.