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Adams: Fearful Symmetries, Wound-dresser / Adams, Sylvan


Release Date: 10/20/1989 
Label:  Nonesuch   Catalog #: 79218   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  John Adams
Performer:  Sanford Sylvan
Conductor:  John Adams
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Orchestra of St. Luke's
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 0 Hours 47 Mins. 

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This CD is reissued by ArkivMusic.

Notes and Editorial Reviews

Before interviewing the composer for our last issue, I'd only had a chance to hear these works on my Walkman during a cross-country trip that began with my picking up an advance tape at the Nonesuch offices. As a result, I was more struck by Fearful Symmetries than The Wound-Dresser, for the extroverted rollicking of the former piece proved far more amenable to the conditions of travel, if not, in fact, partially mimetic of those conditions.

This CD arrived the day after my player went on the fritz. Unable to review it in the comfort of my home, I had to resort to the university sound-studio after hours, a stark and rather frigid locale, the only lighting options being glaring-fluorescent or reflected-from-the-control-booth.
Read more I opted for the latter, unable as a result to read the liner notes or see much of the little there was to see during my audition.

The experience proved revelatory. The Wound-Dresser sets a text by Walt Whitman relating his experience nursing soldiers during the Civil War. Whereas I had earlier found it poignant and quite beautiful, I had missed the terror at the heart of the work, which my clinical surroundings somehow now made manifest. The sophisticated simplicity of Adams's setting is the most impressive attempt to date in Minimalism, infinitely more successful than his at times overblown Harmonium or even the vocal settings in his or Glass's operas or Reich's choral works. The emotional and mathematical center of the piece, “Come, sweet death! be persuaded O beautiful death! / In mercy come quickly,“ is a wrenching climax, relentlessly followed by the beautifully calibrated setting of the grim details of the wound-dresser's labors.

A few days ago I threw the daily paper down in disgust on encountering a movie blurb that went on in the vein of “Try not to cry! Try not to laugh!“ This sadly quotidian journalistic excess might be justified in the case of this CD. I found The Wound-Dresser a wrenching experience, one that is likely to evoke the listener's own painful memories of the death of loved ones (it was inspired by Adams's father's death of Alzheimer's disease). It is most fully heard far from concert-hall distractions, or even listening-room distractions, in some physical correlative of the void Adams confronts in this outstanding composition.

Fearful Symmetries is confrontational (the composer's word) in another sense—a trickster piece in the Grand Pianola Music vein. The more I hear it the more hilarious and ingenious I find it. Fearful Symmetries is a virtuosic capriccio, in which Adams basically explores how much he can make of nothing. The thematic material in the piece is negligible. The inventiveness of the orchestration and counterpoint is inspired. There are lots of witty harmonic, timbrai, and rhythmic juxtapositions and transitions, by means of which Adams, rather astonishingly, sustains this comic tour deforce for nearly half an hour. Originally slotted to appear before the Whitman cantata on this CD (as the cover and liner notes still suggest), Fearful Symmetries in its current position provides much-needed comic relief after the pathos of The Wound-Dresser rather than offering a thoroughly unsuitable introduction to it. Nonetheless, the moods of the two pieces are so diametrically opposed that you are advised to put your player on Automatic Pause before pressing Play. In any case, this is certainly one of the best records of the year, a must for anyone interested in contemporary music, including those who hate Minimalism.

-- Edward Strickland, FANFARE [3/1990] Read less

Works on This Recording

1.
The Wound-Dresser by John Adams
Performer:  Sanford Sylvan (Baritone)
Conductor:  John Adams
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Orchestra of St. Luke's
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1989; USA 
Date of Recording: 08/1989 
Language: English 
2.
Fearful Symmetries by John Adams
Conductor:  John Adams
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Orchestra of St. Luke's
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1988; USA 
Date of Recording: 11/1988 

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