“The Complete String Quartet Works of JOHN ADAMS” = John’s Book of Alleged Dances; String Quartet; Fellow Traveler – Attacca Quartet – Azica ACD-71280, 67:00 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
For a composer with such an exalted international standing, John Adams seems to have an inordinate amount of fun naming his compositions and studding them with little jokes. At a performance of Gnarly Buttons we attended, my wife got a kick out of Adams’s use of the cow horn stop on the electronic keyboard, but it wasn’t clear to me whether she was mostly laughing with Adams or at him.
Anyhow, one thing I’ve always admired about Adams is that he’s not embarrassed to sound like others. He’s an intelligent and “well-read” enough composer to have assimilated a number of influences from Copland to Bartók, whose subliminal influence I hear in my favorite piece from John’s Book of Alleged Dances, “Stubble Crotchet,” a tough little scherzo that sounds like the famous pizzicato movement of Bartók’s Quartet No. 4. Or maybe more precisely, like Bartók crossed with a square dance. To carry on the country-and-Western dance simile a bit further, the succeeding “Toot Nipple” is much more homely in its influences and sounds like a hoedown, just lacking obbligato “ye-haw’s,” which the quartet members could readily have supplied. After all, they’re called on to provide percussion effects elsewhere (drumming on the bodies of their instruments and on other handy surfaces).
So this is highly approachable music that on the surface doesn’t take itself very seriously, although just beneath the surface, Adams’s meticulous craftsmanship is everywhere apparent. It’s notoriously difficult to write for string quartet; otherwise successful composers have wrongheadly bulked up the sound of the four instruments to orchestral proportions (Grieg) or written sketchily for them in more than one spot (Schumann). But Adams has turned out a composition that respects all four players and gives them much of interest to do both individually and collectively.
As for the work that Adams actually nominates String Quartet, it’s oddly proportioned: Movement 1 is almost twenty minutes long, while Movement 2 is a mere slip at eight and a half minutes. There is good precedent for oddly proportioned string quartet music, I guess you could say—look at Beethoven’s Late Quartets and just about any quartet of Shostakovich. And proportion or lack of it is hardly noticed once you get into Adams’s piece. The first movement jogs along rather anxiously though there are passages as well of tender serenity that had me thinking of Ravel’s lyrical String Quartet. The movement is full of incident—and contrast—and so mostly holds the attention through its long course. It’s an astute observation to say, as violist Luke Fleming does in his notes to the recording, that this movement “functions as the traditional opening allegro, scherzo, and slow movements of the standard string quartet form.” Adams’s jumpy little Movement 2 may be both miniature and minimalist, but it brings the work to a satisfyingly lively conclusion that reminds me, oddly enough, of the last piece that Beethoven ever wrote, the Allegro finale to replace the Große Fuge as capstone of the Opus 130 Quartet.
Adams’s unpublished, five-minute-long Fellow Traveler receives its world-premiere recording here. Truth be told, it doesn’t add much to an appreciation of Adams as a composer for string quartet; think of it as an addendum to the pieces in John’s Book of Alleged Dances. The score was written as a gift for producer Peter Sellars, Adams’s chief collaborator on his works for the stage. The strange title “is doubtless a nod and a wink in the direction of Sellars’s. . .absorption with the life and times of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the principal character in the Adams-Sellars opera Doctor Atomic (2005).” Oppenheimer, who later regretted his part in the Manhattan Project, was suspected by the FBI of being a fellow traveler, in league with the hated Commies.
Whew! It takes longer to supply some background to the piece than it does to play it. But as with all the works on this program, the young (founded 2003) Attacca Quartet, composed of former Juilliard students, plays the heck out of it, obviously having as much fun in John’s Book of Alleged Dances as Adams had writing the piece but at the same time investing the String Quartet with the stature that the quartet members thinks it deserves. (Luke Fleming writes, “Our quartet feels strongly that it should (and will) eventually become an integral part of the standard string quartet literature.”) Recommended, then, without quibble.