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Adams: Road Movies / Josefowicz, Novacek, Hodges, Hind


Release Date: 05/04/2004 
Label:  Nonesuch   Catalog #: 79699   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  John Adams
Performer:  Leila JosefowiczJohn NovacekNicolas HodgesRolf Hind
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 8 Mins. 

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This CD is reissued by ArkivMusic.

Notes and Editorial Reviews

This is very close to the entire Adams chamber œuvre for piano, solo and with another instrument. (Adams’s own Web site shows a piano quintet from 1970 that’s unpublished, but that seems to be the only exception.) Whether comprehensive or not, it is a very satisfying collection. By now, we all have come to hear Adams as primarily an orchestral and operatic composer, so it’s a welcome change to hear his ideas evolve in a more intimate format. The happy news is that, even in the more exposed, economical, and unforgiving light of chamber music, his musical ideas and technique continue to shine.

Three works on the program are recent. Road Movies (1995) for violin and piano is a sonatina in all but name. It’s an essay on the
Read more composer’s familiar concerns— familiar patterns (melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic) from popular templates, subtly distorted. The third movement is a particularly exciting study in the compulsive, propulsive power of motor rhythms. Hallelujah Junction (1996), for two pianos, is titled after a town near Adams’s cabin in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. I find it the most spectacular and imaginative work on the disc. While it begins similarly to so many other Adams pieces, by the time it reaches its second movement we are moving into a different realm—on the one hand a sort of bluesy/ballade atmosphere, but also Brahmsian in its sense of grand melodic gesture. The third movement (where the speech-rhythm of the “Hallelujah” comes to the fore) turns into a grand, stomping finale. I’m reminded of Gershwin at his most uninhibited—also of a circus band lurching towards the big top.

That sort of rambunctiousness is pushed to an even greater extreme in American Berserk (2001), for piano. Written for virtuoso Garrick Ohlsson, the ghost in the machine here is more Antheil than Gershwin. Lightning-quick shifts of tonality and metrical pattern, bouncing in an ever-demonic quasi-ragtime, give the piece a Cubistic take on the sources it’s refracting.

This leads to two earlier works for solo piano, China Gates (1977) and Phrygian Gates (1977). The former is a condensed version of the latter—I don’t know if it is a sketch or an echo. But Phrygian Gates is undoubtedly the decisive work in which Adams emerged as a voice in his own right, in which he threw off the legacy of his Northeastern, Harvard-educated musical background and embraced the ethos of California minimalism, which he’d come to love. The Phrygian part is the mode (alternating with Lydian); the “Gates” are the shifts of mode that occur suddenly, like the old-fashioned “gating” mechanism on analog synthesizers. I will confess that having heard the piece many times over many years, it doesn’t grow on me. I acknowledge how important it was to Adams’s development and career, and that it is at least masterful, if not a masterpiece. Despite a majestic pacing and moments of genuine power, it also still seems a little schematic and abstract to me. Adams is a composer who loves not only purity of expression but vulgarity, and it strikes me that his most successful music finds a way to reconcile the two. This work errs more on the side of purity, and some revere it for that—me, less so.

In my other review of Adams’s work in this issue (On the Transmigration of Souls), I speak of Adams as this era’s Copland (or as close as we’ll get). That might seem a little strange in that review, as there I go to lengths to describe his relation to Ives. In this collection, I think the comparison is more apropos. Adams has a deep interest in finding a meeting-point between the visceral immediacy of American popular traditions and the depth of concept and expression that emerges from the more “learned” concert traditions. He wants his music to rock out, but also to stimulate the spirit and intellect. And he’s been quite fearless in the way he’s pushed his envelope. For me, the comparison between Phrygian Gates and American Berserk is a positive one—the later work shows continued growth toward greater complexity and adventure, yet not at the expense of immediacy and excitement.

Since several of these pieces appear to be premiere recordings, I bear a certain bias toward this collection when it comes to the issue of the at least five other recordings of Phrygian Gates. Rolf Hind’s performance emphasizes the rhythmic character of the music slightly over its coloristic qualities, which fits well with the other works on the program. All the other performers are equally at home with the material—swinging it, yet ever faithful to the exactitude of Adams’s writing (though it would have been nice in the booklet notes to have the barest of performer bios; alas, there are none). The sound is excellent. This is another important link in the chain of musically substantial releases that are defining Adams’s enormous influence on American music.

Robert Carl, FANFARE
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Works on This Recording

1.
Road Movies by John Adams
Performer:  Leila Josefowicz (Violin), John Novacek (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1995; USA 
Date of Recording: 09/27/2002 
Venue:  American Academy of Arts and Letters NYC 
Length: 15 Minutes 14 Secs. 
2.
China Gates by John Adams
Performer:  Nicolas Hodges (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1977; USA 
Date of Recording: 07/2003 
Venue:  Lyndhurst Hall, Air Studios, London 
Length: 4 Minutes 28 Secs. 
3.
Phrygian Gates by John Adams
Performer:  Rolf Hind (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1977; USA 
Date of Recording: 07/2003 
Venue:  Lyndhurst Hall, Air Studios, London 
Length: 25 Minutes 28 Secs. 
4.
American Berserk by John Adams
Performer:  Nicolas Hodges (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 2001; USA 
Date of Recording: 07/2003 
Venue:  Lyndhurst Hall, Air Studios, London 
Length: 6 Minutes 0 Secs. 
5.
Hallelujah Junction by John Adams
Performer:  Rolf Hind (Piano), Nicolas Hodges (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1996; USA 
Date of Recording: 07/2003 
Venue:  Lyndhurst Hall, Air Studios, London 
Length: 16 Minutes 25 Secs. 

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