The Royal Scottish National Orchestra again showed itself to be one
of the finest in the world under Stéphane Denève in
their superb Debussy programme (see review),
and now appear led by the baton of Peter Oundjian, Music Director
since 2012. This is a powerful and exciting programme of music by
the ever popular John Adams, and with Chandos’s excellent reputation
for engineering this promises much.
Distilled from Adams’s opera Doctor
Atomic, the Doctor Atomic Symphony is filled with dramatic
action and vivid, superbly effective descriptive music - filling the
mind with thrills and chills when associating the various moods with
the subject of the work, the Manhattan Project and the bombs which
fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Short Ride in a Fast Machine
is the best known work here and given a cracking performance. Harmonielehre
at over 40 minutes is the most substantial work on the programme,
and the closest to what casual listeners would associate with minimalist
techniques. There is a whiff of Steve Reich in this score, and if
you like larger scores of his such as the Desert Music then
you will probably enjoy getting your teeth stuck into this one. There
is plenty of fast/slow action, with driving rhythms carrying sustained
harmonic development, though even with lots of ostinato notes the
sense of real minimalism is dispersed by the sheer amount of ongoing
orchestral activity and contrast. There are references to numerous
other composers such as Mahler, Sibelius and Wagner, and Mervyn Cooke’s
booklet notes point to the score as “a temperature check on
the state of orchestral music in which Schoenberg’s book was
There is competition for all of these pieces elsewhere. The Doctor
Atomic Symphony can be found in a fine recording on the Nonesuch
label superbly performed by the St Louis Symphony Orchestra. Short
Ride in a Fast Machine has been a popular show-stopper recorded
by numerous orchestras, and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under
Marin Alsop on Naxos is terrific (see review).
This piece appears with Sir Simon Rattle on EMI with the City of Birmingham
Symphony Orchestra though the woodwinds barely cope in the wild figures
which begin the work, and Michael Tilson Thomas’s San Francisco
Symphony version is a tad leisurely, adding nearly half a minute to
the RSNO’s 4 minute timing. This release (see review)
also has a magnificent recording of Harmonielehre which would
be my top choice for this particular work, Tilson Thomas delivering
excitement with a light touch and sensitive feel for orchestral colour
and balance, giving the piece a luminosity and refinement as well
as hitting all the dramatic points hard.
If I have any criticism of the otherwise impressive sound of this
Chandos release it would be a desire for a bit more oomph in the bass.
If you listen to the racy chords towards the beginning of the second
movement of the Doctor Atomic Symphony you might hear what
I mean, with plenty of wallop in the upper brass and the lower instruments
audible but with less impact. The vital lower lines supporting the
harmonies in Harmonielehre could also have used a bit of a
boost to my ears. This is pretty marginal and could even be something
you can experiment with and perhaps solve through adjusting your own
sound system. I rigorously keep to ‘source direct’ when
it comes to amplification to keep a level playing field between recordings
and to have as neutral a sound as possible, and any such comments
are based on comparisons made under equal conditions.
None of the performances in this Chandos recording are likely to disappoint,
but for all the accuracy of most of the playing and verve in the sound
I miss some of the atmosphere and emotive weight created in some of
the alternatives mentioned. John Adams’s music demands a Hollywood
romantic sweep at times which never quite seems to take off under
Peter Oundjian, and despite all the talent and spectacular musicianship
on show here I found myself having difficulty becoming truly involved.
Perhaps we’ve all moved on a bit from the earlier of these works,
and I found myself irritated by thinness at places where once I would
have been thrilled. There are also some moments where things only
just hang together, and if you compare 8:45 into the third movement
of Harmonielehre with Tilson Thomas you may hear what I mean.
The sheer excitement of the final section from the San Francisco Symphony
is also barely approached by the more generalised sound from the RSNO.
This Chandos is a fine release and it is good to have these pieces
together on a single disc, but taking each work individually I find
my first choices lie elsewhere.
Previous reviews: Steve
Simon Thompson (Recording of the Month)