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John ADAMS (b. 1947)
Doctor Atomic Symphony (2007) [24:20]
Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986) [4:00]
Harmonielehre (1984-85) [41:27]
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Peter Oundjian
rec. 10-11 February 2013 (Harmonielehre) and 30 April 2013, Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow.
CHANDOS CHSA 5129 SACD [70:15]

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 written.”
 
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.
 
Dominy Clements 

Previous reviews: Steve Arloff ~~ Simon Thompson (Recording of the Month)  


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