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John ADAMS (b. 1947)
My Father Knew Charles Ives (2003) [27:28]
Harmonielehre (1985) [41:28]
Nashville Symphony/Giancarlo Guerrero
rec. October 2018 and October 2019, Laura Turner Concert Hall, Nashville, USA

The two works here are presented as part of a series called ‘American Classics’, but when does a piece of music become a ‘classic’? And who decides? Not many of us would argue with the term – assuming that we can agree about what it means – when applied to, say, Beethoven’s 5th. But can any work qualify, has it been around long enough, if it was composed after about 1950?

Harmonielehre is a 40-minute orchestral piece in three movements that has been recorded at least three times before. It refers back to Schoenberg, his harmony and theory book of the same title. Schoenberg’s techniques are distant here, however: Adams was seeking to explore and question the possibilities of diatonic harmony in the late twentieth century. The first movement opens with a stupendous series of repeated chords from the full orchestra. Listeners familiar with Adams’s Minimalist style will be on familiar ground in the long, rapid middle section that eventually progresses to a long-limbed melody on the strings accompanied by constantly moving figuration elsewhere. A splendidly rich orchestral climax ensues, before the mood of the opening returns. Frank K. DeWald, in an excellent booklet note, tells us that the composer describes the second movement as ‘a piece about sickness and infirmity, physical and spiritual’. There is little of Minimalism in this movement, but much bitterness, and when the climax comes it is shattering. Minimalist techniques return for the third movement, music of extreme, buoyant energy, leading to a long, drawn-out coda around the chord of E flat major that ends the work on a note of ecstatic triumph.

Minimalism is a highly misleading term. If there is anything to say about John Adams’s music it is that it teems with incident. I once sat beside the percussion section of the Toulouse Capitole Orchestra in a performance of The Chairman Dances. The players were given barely a moment’s peace, and the rhythms prescribed complex in the extreme. Driving energy through rhythm is one of the defining features of Adams’s work, and Harmonielehre is no exception. Does his way with rhythm have anything to do with his nationality? I think it does, and comparing this Nashville performance with that of Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (EMI/Warner, 1993) tends to confirm it. The opening chords are more percussive, more violent in Birmingham, but comparison thereafter works almost exclusively in the American orchestra’s favour. Rhythms throughout, but especially in the outer movements, are at once more relaxed and more expressive, more cool, if you like. Guerrero and his magnificent players inject meaning into long series of repeated chords where the Birmingham orchestra seems only to play them. The music was still quite new in 1993, but even so, the American players seem to have a natural feeling for it that rather eluded those in Birmingham at that time.

Whether Adams intended an allusion to a First World War British combatants’ song when he chose the title for My Father Knew Charles Ives is anybody’s guess. I rather think not, but either way, his father did not know Charles Ives. He has described the work as ‘a piece of musical autobiography’, in which case it would seem inevitable that his own father and a composer who, in his own words, was a ‘huge’ influence on him would feature strongly.

This work was new to me, with no other recording available and no score to hand. From listening alone, then, this comes over as a sensational performance with playing and conducting of the utmost virtuosity. Every section of the orchestra seems to be in total command, a truly remarkable achievement given the complexity of the music. Once again the rhythmic writing poses extreme challenges. The second part of the first movement, for example, evokes some kind of march or parade, and one with more than a nod to Ives in that different musical events pass through with dizzying rapidity, and even occur simultaneously. Just as the first movement opens with a long trumpet solo, so does the second movement feature an important part for the first oboe. Both are stupendously played here. Nature sounds, and a distant dance band – a reference to Adams’s father – are other elements in this atmospheric slow movement. About the finale the composer has stated that it is ‘less about Ives and more about Adams’. It is, in fact, a riotous display, with musical ideas, rather than themes, that chase each other with ever-increasing intensity. Just when you think the composer can hardly go further the energy suddenly dissolves, and the work ends with a slower section of extreme beauty.

Some eighteen years separate these two works, and the evolution of Adams’s musical style is evident. Are they ‘classics’? Both works are examples of the composer’s extraordinary fecund imagination and technical skill, and both give this particular listener – an Adams admirer – enormous pleasure. Given the difference in ambiance and style between the two works, these brilliantly played and recorded performances might just make an ideal point of entry for those new to the composer.

William Hedley

Previous review: Stephen Barber

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