JOHN ADAMS: Harmonielehre; Doctor Atomic Symphony; Short Ride in a Fast Machine – Royal Scottish Nat. Orch./ Peter Oundjian – Chandos multichannel SACD CHSA 5129, 70:15 [Distr. by Naxos] (11/19/13) ****:
A great hi-res surround collection of works by America’s leading living composer.
John Adams was recently referred to by The New Yorker like this: “may be the most vital and eloquent composer in America.” There are now many recordings of his exciting music available, though I’ve found among the best are those by the San Francisco Symphony, in the place where he got his start with many premieres of his works. His 2008 book Hallelujah Junction, has been praised as unlike anything ever written by a composer—part memoir and part description of the creative process. His musical lineage goes back to the era of the swing bands; his father was a clarinetist and his mother a jazz singer. His early compositions were solidly minimal but he developed over the years a strikingly original musical portrayal of American life that has made him one of the most admired and often-performed composers today.
While I find the SF Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas SACD of both Harmonielehere and Short Ride in a Fast Machine to be somewhat more energetic and full of life than these two competing recordings, this seems to be the first orchestral recording on SACD of Adam’s one-movement symphony which he created out of music from one his several operas on contemporary and often controversial subjects. (There was a previous one on a Nonesuch CD.) The two-act Doctor Atomic opera was based on documentary sources and centers on the character of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer as preparations are being made for the first test of his atomic bomb which he had led the Manhattan Project in producing at Los Alamos, NM.
The symphony has three distinct sections: “The Laboratory” is a short and violent overture, inspired by the music of Varèse. The longest section, “Panic,” is a musical picture of the various characters in the opera during an electric storm which comes up just as the test is to happen, and the concluding “Trinity,” gets its title from the name Oppenheimer gave to the Alamogordo test, and refers to a John Donne poem about a “three-person’d God.”
This and the SF Symphony SACD bring some of the most exciting works of John Adams to one’s collection, but it would be amiss if I didn’t also mention what I think is one of the finest and most accessible demonstrations of the music of Adams, as well as of the most superb hi-res surround sound possible on SACD. That would be Kristian Järvi and the Symphony Orchestra of Norrlands Opera in the most popular instrumental piece from Adam’s opera Nixon in China—The Chairman Dances (CCn’C 01912 “Shifting Landscapes”).