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Adams: Doctor Atomic Symphony, Guide To Strange Places / Robertson, Saint Louis Symphony

Release Date: 07/28/2009 
Label:  Nonesuch   Catalog #: 468220   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  John Adams
Conductor:  David Robertson
Orchestra/Ensemble:  St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
In Stock: Usually ships in 24 hours.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews

ADAMS Doctor Atomic Symphony. 1 Guide to Strange Places 2 David Robertson, cond; Saint Louis SO NONESUCH 468220 (47:03) Live: St. Louis 2/7–8/2008; 1 9/26–27/2008 2

In an opera full of arresting images, the stunning act I finale of John Adams’s 2005 Doctor Atomic stands out. Read more In Peter Sellars’s staging, physicist Robert Oppenheimer recoils from the shrouded atomic bomb hours before the test firing, agonized at what he was about to bring into the world. To the words of John Donne, “Batter my heart, three person’d God,” he bares his soul as the device glows ominously behind him. This has to be one of the great scenes of contemporary opera. How could an orchestral reworking of that scene, or any of this 25-minute score shorn of its powerful context, possibly hope to compete?

In truth, it cannot. Fine as the solo work of SLSO principal trumpeter Susan Slaughter is in the last movement, the orchestral version of the aria stirs rather than devastates. But this in no way suggests that the symphony should be passed over. Though the emotional impact, here and elsewhere in the work, may be comparatively muted, it is still potent, and the distillation of the score—actually music reworked from four extended sequences of the opera—creates its own unique impact. From the powerful, brassy Varèse-inspired opening, with the menacing pounding of the timpani, to the anxious restless motion of the middle movement, punctuated with triadic explosions from the brass—like great harbingers of doom—to the final incantation interwoven with the rhythms of impending destruction overwhelming it, this powerful score creates its own dramatic trajectory. Deemed too long in its premiere form, Adams trimmed it from an original 42 minutes in four movements to its current three. The second movement still falters a bit midway, without the action and imagery that accompanied it originally, but this is an interesting addition to Adams’s œuvre nonetheless.

As welcome as this recording of the Doctor Atomic Symphony is—and it has generated great anticipation—the real find is the second half of this CD. Guide to Strange Places , taking Adams’s statement that all his works are “travel pieces,” is an absorbing and somewhat unsettling trip and works within that metaphor on several levels. It was inspired by a French guidebook, A Black Guide to Mysterious Provence , which, we are told, leads the traveler from places mundane to the picturesque and then to more unconventional sites. Guide is a series of continuous and overlapping variations, beginning with an energetic and bright minimalist ostinato that gradually morphs into things darker and distinctly sinister. Uncued by the notes, a first listening conjured a Dante-inspired image, as the piece seemed to suggest a descent into a multi-layered hell. The piece can also be heard as a figurative journey through Adams’s many approaches to composition. Though he doesn’t do any self-quotation, those familiar with Adams’s works will recognize styles. Rooted initially in the order of minimalism, the variations—drawing on a wide variety of influences from the aforementioned Varèse to Messiaen to Stravinsky—interrupt and displace each other before culminating in ominous chords of Doctor Atomic -like ambiguity.

A great vote of thanks is due Nonesuch for making these performances available. This represents the SLSO’s first appearance on this label since the short-lived Saint Louis Symphony Commissions series in the mid 1980s. The engineering of this disc is first-rate, catching the warm ambience of Powell Symphony Hall along with plenty of detail. The orchestra surmounts the considerable technical challenges of the works with élan , matching the excellent Netherlands Philharmonic in the DVD recording of the opera for expressiveness and surpassing them in precision. The only complaint is the short playing time. That criticism aside, this release is warmly recommended.

FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames
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Works on This Recording

Doctor Atomic Symphony by John Adams
Conductor:  David Robertson
Orchestra/Ensemble:  St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
Period: 21st Century 
Written: 2007; USA 
Length: 24 Minutes 21 Secs. 
Guide to Strange Places by John Adams
Conductor:  David Robertson
Orchestra/Ensemble:  St. Louis Symphony Orchestra
Period: 21st Century 
Written: 2001; USA 
Length: 22 Minutes 40 Secs. 

Featured Sound Samples

Doctor Atomic Symphony: II. Panic
Doctor Atomic Symphony: III. Trinity
Guide to Strange Places

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