By Karl W. Nehring
For music lovers who may not be familiar with the music of American composer John Adams (b. 1947), this recording of some of his orchestral music might be the perfect introduction. Under the direction of Kent Nagano, who has long been an advocate of Adams's music, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra performs three compelling compositions that are "modern" enough to sound new and different but at the same time "comfortable" enough in terms of harmony, melody, and rhythm that they should be entertaining for all but the most conservative of listeners.
The disc opens with one of his earlier scores for orchestra, Common Tones in Simple Time, composed in 1979. The piece carries a strong rhythmic pulse throughout, recalling the days when Adams was looked upon as one of the new "Minimalist" composers (others so characterized included Philip Glass and Steve Reich), but the orchestral colors are rich, far from what could reasonably described as minimal. I had enjoyed hearing this piece decades ago on a recording I cannot now recall by whom, but had not heard it in quite some time and was quite excited to hear it again. It evokes feelings of space, wonder, possibility, and hope. Can it really be 40 years since it was composed? My goodness…
Next up is Harmonielehre (1985), a three-movement piece that could be thought of as a kind of symphony (Adams has never composed a formal symphony, alas – such a work is high on my musical wish list). A similar sort of composition would be Hindemith's Symphony: Mathis der Maler, a symphony in three movements: Engelkonzert (Angelic Concert), Grablegung (Entombment), and Versuchung des heiligen Antonius (The Temptation of Saint Anthony). The titles of the movements refer to paintings by Mathias Grunewald and the work feels more like a series of three tone poems than a symphony. Harmonielehre, by contrast, feels more like a symphony, although the titles of its three movements are a mixed blend of the symphonic-sounding straightforward ("First movement") and the tone-poemish-sounding strange ("The Anfortas Wound" and "Meister Eckhardt and Quackie"). Those interested in finding out more about these titles and the piece overall would do well to read Adams's own exposition at his informative website.
The final piece in this collection is the one most likely to be familiar to classical music fans, as it has been often recorded and widely performed in concert. As the title "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" might suggest, the music is fast and exhilarating, surging forward with great energy, ending the program on this CD with a colorful flourish.
Although as I said at the outset I find this a recommendable release, I do have a couple of minor quibbles. First, the liner notes are nearly unreadable because of their small font size and some truly unfortunate color choices. What were they thinking? Second, the sound quality, although certainly adequate, left me wishing for a bit more bass (I like big bass and I cannot lie). The sound does not seem quite up to the lofty standards set by those classic Dutoit/OSM recordings of decades past. Still, the generous program (the first time I heard Harmonielehre was on a CD that contained only that piece) of truly entertaining and stimulating music makes this a release of genuine value.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: