Notes and Editorial Reviews
Edo de Waart, cond; San Francisco SO & Ch
ECM 1277 (32:14)
In 1985, there was still no consensus regarding the viability of the music still called “Minimalism”—or even the applicability of the term. John Adams had never embraced the designation, and his earliest compositions were hard to pigeonhole.
had seemed to suggest a kinship with Minimalism, but the expressive and colorful phrases that he drew from the original
string septet version promised something new. Then, seemingly out of the blue, this piece for large orchestra and chorus (the performing forces numbered 220) was released on LP. According to Adams, Steve Reich had recommended the work to Manfred Eicher, head of ECM Records, which released the recording in its New Series.
Critical reaction hadn’t been kind: Adams writes (in
, his highly entertaining memoir) that critics complained that the philosophical and theological subtlety of the text in Part 1, a poem by John Donne, was sabotaged by a “too-simplistic musical treatment.” Tim Page, writing in
(in a review of this recording) “simply bloated and silly.” On the other hand, Michael Steinberg, writing in the San Francisco Symphony program book, gave a detailed and insightful analysis of the work, suggesting, for instance, that “while the harmonies for the most part move and change slowly, the surface of the music is a continuous rippling, and exhilarating surge in relentless crescendo, and—shades of Beethoven again—possessed of a powerfully determined sense of harmonic and rhetorical goal.”
While critical opinion may have been mixed, the work eventually entered the choral repertory, programmed by such conductors as Dennis Russell Davies, Leonard Slatkin, and Simon Rattle. In actuality a choral symphony in the tradition of Mahler’s Eighth,
’s three movements are settings of poetic texts: the aforementioned John Donne in Part 1, Emily Dickinson in Parts 2 and 3. While the choral writing is essentially homophonic, the simple beauty of the sung texts carries a powerful emotional charge, and the momentum of “Wild Nights,” the second of the two Dickinson poems that comprise the finale, transmits the pulse of Minimalism through the power of a symphony orchestra at full strength.
Edo de Waart, an early and dedicated supporter who urged that the SFSO commission Adams to write a major work for the orchestra, conducted this premiere recording of
. Adams himself conducted a new recording of the piece for inclusion in the Nonesuch compendium of his work titled
; it is a tribute to Adams’s close (and continuing) relationship with the San Francisco Symphony that he chose to record the remake with the same orchestra and chorus.
FANFARE: Christopher Abbot
Works on This Recording
Harmonium by John Adams
Edo de Waart
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra,
San Francisco Symphony Chorus
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1980; USA
Date of Recording: 01/1984
Venue: Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco
Length: 32 Minutes 14 Secs.
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