Having already given us several excellent discs of
Samuel Barber for Naxos, Marin Alsop now turns her attention to the
music of another fellow American, John Adams.
How does one define Adams? In his liner note Daniel
Felsenfeld states that Adams "has earned his place in the mighty triumvirate
of American Minimalist composers alongside Philip Glass and Steve Reich."
If one takes that statement at face value I would respectfully have
to disagree. I mean no slight on either Glass or Reich; though Adamsí
music speaks much more powerfully to me than does theirs, but thatís
a subjective preference. Adams has gone way beyond minimalism and in
the process has become a much richer composer (not in the monetary sense)
and a much more interesting and communicative one. In his recent Penguin
Companion to Classical Music Paul Griffiths describes Adams
brilliantly as "a post-minimalist master of exuberance and intricacy."
The adroitly-chosen programme of this CD gives us a glimpse of some
of the stages on Adamsí evolutionary journey from minimalist beginnings.
The earliest piece, where minimalist influences are
at their strongest, is Shaker Loops. As Mr. Felsenfeld points
out, this work started off as a string quartet with the title Wavemaker.
In this form it was withdrawn after a single performance. What is not
mentioned in the note is Adamsí subsequent revision of the score into
a string septet (3 violins, 1 viola, 2 cellos and a bass). This is the
1977 Ďeditioní which remains a completely valid version. What we have
here is the 1983 re-working of the piece for full string orchestra,
the form in which I strongly suspect it is most frequently heard nowadays.
Ms Alsop leads a quite splendid performance. The athletic,
at times pounding "shaking" of the first section is very well done.
I love Mr. Felsenfeldís description of this section as "fast and wildly
caffeinated." sample The eerie atmosphere
of the second, more subdued episode is delivered very well sample
and Ms Alsop also responds very acutely to the more serious introspection
of the third part. sample The final section
brings the work full circle with a revisiting of the idea, if not the
material, of the opening "shaking." ending This
very fine reading stands up very well in comparison with the composerís
own superb recording (on Nonesuch) though not even Alsop can match the
truly formidable climax that Adams achieves in the third section just
before the link into the final section.
Chronologically, the next work in the programme is
A Short Ride in a Fast Machine. Adams has said of the title of
the work: "You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific
sports car, and then you wish you hadnít?" Well, Marin Alsop has the
top down and her foot firmly to the floor in this exhilarating reading
of what is a tremendous showpiece. The recorded sound here is bright
and in your face, very appropriately. sample
The performance matches in quality the pioneering account by Edo de
Waart and the San Francisco Symphony (Nonesuch) although the Nonesuch
recording managed to combine brightness with just a little more bass
depth than the Naxos engineers achieve. However, itís a marvellous reading
nonetheless and makes an ear-catching opening to the CD.
The Wound Dresser is one of Adamsí masterpieces.
Itís a setting of part of a poem by Walt Whitman in which the poet describes
his experiences as a nurse during the American Civil War. The text is
pretty uncompromising and is not for the squeamish. Iím not certain
what motivated Adams to write the piece. Thereís been a lot of speculation
that it is a response to the AIDS crisis. In the notes accompanying
the composerís own recording of the work the annotator points out that
at the time of composition Adamsí mother was tending his father who
was dying of Alzheimerís disease. And, of course, the work may also
be inspired by a revulsion against violence. Whatever the inspiration,
the music is deeply eloquent and moving. Mr. Felsenfeld rightly notes
that Adams employs "admirable restraint". Itís a trait that IĎve remarked
on, before reading this comment, in reviewing
recently Adamsí On the Transmigration of Souls. Itís
not all restrained. Thereís a searing passage, featuring manic bugle
calls between 11í00" and about 12í30" at the words "I dress a wound
in the side, deep, deep". But for the most part the music is sombre
and excess is tellingly avoided. The piece is, effectively, a soliloquy
for baritone and orchestra. sample
In Nathan Gunn we have a superb soloist. The dignity
and compassion of his singing suit the music to perfection. He has a
rich, full tone and he employs just the right amount of vibrato. His
diction is excellent. He is given first rate support by Marin Alsop
and her Bournemouth players. The poignancy and passion of such passages
as "Come, sweet death!" (8í46") and "some are so young, some suffer
so much" (16í46") are beautifully delivered. Thereís strong competition
from Sanford Sylvan, for whom the work was conceived, singing with the
composer conducting (Nonesuch). Sylvan has a lighter, slightly more
forward baritone which some may feel suits the music even better. Personally,
I wouldnít be without either version. This is a masterly score and this
newcomer is fully worthy of the quality of the music.
One word of warning. Naxos print the text of The
Wound Dresser. Inexplicably, however, theyíve missed out the first
stanza (nine lines). However, Gunnís diction is so good that I donít
see this being a major inconvenience.
Oddly, the most recent work on the disc isnít even
mentioned in the notes. This is Adamsí arrangement for chamber orchestra
of an orchestral work by Busoni. The original, his Op. 42, dates from
1909 and its full title is Berceuse élégiaque (des
Mannes Wiegenlied am Sarge seiner Mutter) or Cradle Song (of
the Man at his Motherís Coffin). Here again, perhaps, we
see evidence of Adamsí restraint in the face of suffering in that this
sombre but subdued piece by Busoni clearly exerted a strong appeal to
him. In a note accompanying his own 1995 recording Adams commented that
the work is "of the most hushed intimacy. Here the cradle rocks with
barely perceptible movement while the musical Ďnarratorí sings a song
of dolorous, resigned sorrow." Adamsí own recording is very fine but
by a short head I prefer Alsopís version. sample
The Adams performance is recorded a bit more closely and, dare I
suggest it, perhaps Alsop exerts even more control over the dynamic
range. In any event it is she that best conveys the "hushed intimacy".
The Berceuse is a splendid homage by one composer to another and Naxos
have very sensibly ordered the CD so that this work follows The Wound
Dresser to which it is a most effective foil. Incidentally, in the
heading to this review Iíve given the composition date as stated on
the CD packaging. However, the documentation accompanying the Adams
recording states that the Berceuse was first performed in November 1990
so I suspect that date may be the correct one.
All of Marin Alsopís discs that Iíve heard to date
have impressed me but I fancy that this disc may be her most important
achievement to date in the studio. Quite apart from the excellence of
the performances, all given good recorded sound, this CD offers an ideal
and very inexpensive introduction to the music of one of the most interesting
and stimulating composers currently before the public. For the newcomer
to Adamsí music this is well-nigh ideal. Those who are already enthusiasts
for his music should also add it to their collection, even if this involves
duplication, for it is a top quality release. Urgently recommended.