Notes and Editorial Reviews
Peter Oundjian and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra tackle two seminal works by the American composer John Adams. Harmonielehre, a symphony in all but name, is an expansive, richly expressive, and often breathtaking work. It takes its title from a 1911 text by Arnold Schoenberg on harmonic theory and evokes the lush soundworld of that composer’s early tonal period. Also heard throughout the score are echoes of Mahler, Wagner, Strauss, Sibelius, Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky. The piece also takes inspiration from some of Adams’s own strange and surreal dreams. The Doctor Atomic Symphony, based on Adams’s controversial opera Doctor Atomic, focuses on the character of the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer as preparations are made for the
first test of the atomic bomb. Although played without a break, the symphony falls into three distinct sections: ‘The Laboratory’, ‘Panic’, and ‘Trinity’. The symphony’s concluding section takes its title from the name given to the bomb test site by Oppenheimer himself, with reference to a deeply spiritual John Donne sonnet. This poem is set to music at the end of Act I of the opera and here in the symphony the aria’s intense vocal line is performed by solo trumpet. Also featured on the album is John Adams’s energetic fanfare Short Ride in a Fast Machine.
R E V I E W:
“Doctor Atomic” Symphony.
Harmonielehre. Short Ride in a Fast Machine
Peter Oundjian, cond; Royal Scottish Natl O
CHANDOS 5129 (70:15)
This spectacular new release is perhaps the perfect introduction to those who do not already know the music of John Adams, as it contains not only three of his most effective works, but also encompasses a representative overview of the evolution of his compositional style.
The cornerstone of the program is Adams’s monumental
35:6, I described it as follows: “John Adams’s 1985
was and still is a landmark work, not only in the composer’s output, but also within the larger scope of late 20th Century orchestral music. With
Adams definitively demonstrated that minimalist techniques, previously thought by many to be not only a passing fad, but an emotionally vacuous one at that, could be used to create music of great power and deeply felt human expression.” In this work, Adams integrates these minimalist techniques, some might say clichés, into a musical vocabulary based on the development of strongly expressive melodic material and compelling rhythmic patterns.
not only created a huge initial sensation when it was premiered in San Francisco in 1985, but has established and maintained a strong foothold in the repertoire ever since. The work is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. With this splendid new release,
, essentially a three-movement symphony, has now been recorded six times and of the five that I have heard, there is not a dud in the lot. These include two offerings by the San Francisco Symphony, the orchestra that commissioned the work: the excellent premiere recording conducted by Edo de Waart (Nonesuch 79115–2) and a breathtakingly powerful 2011 release conducted by current music director Michael Tilson Thomas (SFS Media 0053). Other recordings included the muscular and colorful Rattle/City of Birmingham (EMI 5-55051–2) and a solid, serviceable Saint Louis account conducted by David Robertson (available as a digital download from the orchestra’s web page and on iTunes and Amazon). There is also one by the Litauische Philharmonie conducted by Juozas Domarkas (available on two separate Denon releases) which I have not heard.
This new recording can stand toe-to-toe with the best. From the violently pounding hammer strokes of the first movement’s opening E-Minor chords we know this performance by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra presented in the insightful interpretation of its recently appointed music director Peter Oundjian is going to be something special. This impression is carried through the darkly hued and sinister second movement to the ear-tickling colors and dancing rhythmic fragments of the third. The brass is especially powerful, the woodwinds and percussion are vividly colorful, and the whole performance is enhanced by an extraordinarily detailed and impactful recorded soundstage. I have to admit, I was emotionally exhausted at the end of my first listening (but in a good way), so visceral was its overall effect on me.
The disc opens with “Doctor Atomic” Symphony, a work derived from Adams’s opera of the same title. It is not a symphony in the traditional sense; the composer is not concerned with the development of melodic, harmonic, and/or rhythmic ideas. However, this is not to imply that the work is without structure. Quite the contrary, here Adams has synthesized the dramatic and emotional arc of the opera into a concise, tightly organized three-movement work. This is no mere suite of “highlights.” With its pounding timpani, snarling brass, and shrieking strings, the brief first movement immediately calls to mind the music of Edgard Varèse and Carl Ruggles. The second movement is dark, gloomy, and mysterious with a sinister
feel. The closing aria, though performed very expressively by trumpeter Huw Morgan, does not quite elicit the same devastating emotional effect as it does in the opera. The vocabulary of the work might strike some as a bit severe, characterized as it is by sharply angular melodies and unapologetically dissonant harmonies, but the emotional impact of the Symphony is undeniable. Clocking in at only four minutes, the disc is filled out with the shortest and fastest
Short Ride in a Fast Machine
on record. It’s quite a roller-coaster ride.
It’s very early in 2014, but I cannot imagine this superb new release not making my Want List. Highest Recommendation.
FANFARE: Merlin Patterson
Works on This Recording
Doctor Atomic Symphony by John Adams
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Period: 21st Century
Written: 2007; USA
Harmonielehre by John Adams
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1985; USA
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