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Adams: China Gates, Phrygian Gates; Glass: Orphee Suite / David Jalbert

Adams / Glass / Jalbert
Release Date: 09/28/2010 
Label:  Atma Classique   Catalog #: 2556   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  John AdamsPhilip Glass
Performer:  David Jalbert
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

ADAMS China Gates. Phrygian Gates. GLASS Orphée: Suite David Jalbert (pn) ATMA ACD2 2556 (56:07)

The music of John Adams is so eclectic that attempting to arrange it into neat categories is very much beside the point. It can be sometimes useful, however, for the sake of discussion, to categorize the various pieces by chronology. Both Phrygian Gates and Read more China Gates date from Adams’s earliest mature period—the time after his move to the West Coast and subsequent exploration of improvisation and electronics, to the discovery of Minimalism through works by Riley and Reich, culminating in Shaker Loops . Adams has written, “ Phrygian Gates and its companion piece China Gates , written for the pianist Sarah Cahill, were the most strictly organized, rigorously ordered works I ever composed. They also demonstrated the fruits of my initiation to Minimalism.” He says of the character of Phrygian Gates , “The piece turned out to be a behemoth: a non-stop tour of the keys—or rather half of them—that kept the pianist going at maximum concentration as the music moved back and forth from Lydian to Phrygian modes” ( Hallelujah Junction , pp. 88–89).

My benchmark recording of Phrygian Gates is the one played by Rolf Hind on the Nonesuch disc of instrumental works titled Road Movies , where the three sections are sensibly given separate tracks. In part I, Hind’s wave-like forward motion is smooth and fluid; the crescendos and changes in phrasing are more dramatic as the increased emphasis interrupts the continuity. David Jalbert is faster and less fluid with more distinctly percussive arpeggios, and there is a jagged, aggressive quality to his louder passages. For the short second part, titled “A System of Weights and Measures,” Hind is somber and meditative while Jalbert’s chords have less resonance and he projects more a quality of barely contained anger. In part III, Hind is at first unsettling and dark as the left hand rumbles away; fluidity returns and colors brighten, becoming a quite manic toccata. Jalbert’s is a more muscular approach than Hind’s, and again, the percussive nature of the playing produces a very aggressive tone that is impressive but not as musical as Hind’s. This is obviously a matter of taste, but I prefer Hind’s gentler, more varied approach. (The sound on both discs is fine, with the Atma disc recorded at a higher dynamic level, complementing Jalbert’s brawny playing.)

The arpeggios of China Gates are echoed in the later Grand Pianola Music , and its character is less percussive and Minimal than Phrygian Gates . Adams writes that both of the “gates” pieces were written during a spell of particularly wet Northern California weather, and that the continuing patter of the notes probably owes much to the precipitation. The performance by Nicolas Hodges on the Nonesuch disc sounds like just such a rainy afternoon, with hints of thunder in the lower tones. Jalbert’s is very similar, with no hint of the aggression of his Phrygian Gates.

The suite of pieces by Philip Glass on this disc derives from Glass’s chamber opera based on the Jean Cocteau film of the Orpheus legend, arranged for piano by Paul Barnes. The opening ragtime piece “The Café” is rambunctious and quite disarming. “Orphée’s Bedroom” is short, quiet, and discursive, followed by “The Journey to the Underworld,” for which Glass writes traveling music with a sinister cast, similar to themes in his score for Dracula . “Orphée and the Princess” is an ardent love theme for the confession of the Princess’s love for Orphée, followed by an Interlude that links the love theme to “Orphée’s Return.” This somber piece describes the return of the travelers in the Underworld to the land of the living, and the Princess’s doom. The final piece returns to the bedroom of Orphée, where he contemplates the sleeping Eurdice.

The style of the piece pays tribute to the spirit of Paris during the 20s and 30s, with hints of Ravel, Debussy, Satie, and others. As readers know, I’m no fan of Glass, but this entertaining suite provides an interesting contrast to the Adams works.

The last time I visited the pieces by Adams was in Fanfare 29:1 with the disc on Black Box featuring Andrew Russo, a disc I was quite enthusiastic about. Though there is little doubt concerning Jalbert’s talent, I prefer the performances on the Nonesuch disc; I find Jalbert’s more stentorian phrasing to be less ingratiating than either Russo or Hind in Phrygian Gates . The presence of the Glass work, however, may be ample incentive for listeners interested in contemporary American piano music.

FANFARE: Christopher Abbot
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Works on This Recording

China Gates by John Adams
Performer:  David Jalbert (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1977; USA 
Phrygian Gates by John Adams
Performer:  David Jalbert (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1977; USA 
Orphée: Suite for Piano by Philip Glass
Performer:  David Jalbert (Piano)
Written: 2000 

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