The John Adams Album (CD review)

Common Tones in Simple Time; Harmonielehre; Short Ride in a Fast Machine. Kent Nagano, Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, Decca 483 4938.

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.

Kent Nagano
The first movement begins with pounding chords in an insistent rhythm that is pretty much sustained throughout. At times, prominent woodwinds will remind some listeners of the scoring of Sibelius. Although the movement does not have a descriptive title, the music arouses in my admittedly unfettered mind imagery of motion past a background of mountains, forests, and other natural wonders. As the movement comes to an end, the rhythm remains in the percussion as the volume fades, the music that started with a bang ending in a whimper. The second movement is like an adagio, brooding music short on percussion with woodwinds playing in the middle registers, then some brass, a trumpet sounding a plaintive call, building to a climax with the trumpet on top, reminiscent of Mahler. The movement ends with the brass section yielding to the strings playing softly. The third movement reverts to the rhythmic emphasis and vigorous energy of the first movement, but rather than fading into a soft ending sustains its musical vigor throughout. As a whole, Harmonielehre truly does sound like a symphony, a splendid symphony indeed.

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:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa