John Adams
Century Rolls*
Lollapalooza
Slonimsky’s Earbox
*Emanuel Ax (piano)
*The Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Christoph von Dohnanyi

The Halle Orchestra conducted by Kent Nagano
CD No: NONESUCH 7559-79607-2
Duration:
Reviewed: November 2001
With the BBC-sponsored John Adams weekend coming to the Barbican (18-20 January) and a bit of an Adams blitz planned for www.classicalsource.com – keep viewing this website – I thought this release would make a good starting-point.
There’s no escaping John Adams’s music. He is, apparently, the most-played living American composer; he certainly has a huge following, and there’s no shortage of CDs. I’m curious about my own reaction to his music. I can be bowled-over or left nonplussed. Pieces that impressed can go ’cold’ on re-hearing; pieces treated cynically initially can be a revelation next time. I really didn’t care for Century Rolls, a concerto for Emanuel Ax; this recording suggests that I underestimated it.
The opening “twittering machine” idea has one reacting, ’here we go again’. Yet the ear is tweaked by the singular use of instruments, monotony is avoided, and there’s no doubting the hypnotic power. There is though an auditory ’fight’ to not give in, to retain one’s critical faculty, which is difficult when Adams’s cumulative groundplan is so progressively enticing; there’s also the ’distraction’ of hearing Gershwin’s concerto revisited through Adams’s stylised phrases. The energy of the first movement, called by Adams ’First Movement’, certainly has holding-power. Adams, in his booklet note, refers to player-piano recordings and how music is reproduced. The machine-like rhythmic advance mirrors Adams’s intent; its development also brings an emotional outpouring before subsiding to its pulsing beginning now elaborated by tintinnabulation and sassy low winds to herald an extended ’cool’ coda that moves into a remake of Satie’s Gymnopedies, ’Manny’s Gym’. This is balm to the ear if too close to its model, the soloist tinkering with Chopin – not too much of a workout for Manny!
This 30-minute Century Rolls culminates with ’Hail Bop’ – comets and Bebop piano give the clue to Adams’s invention, which proves less interesting. It’s a fragmented journey, five minutes elapse until an engaging idea (5’12”), which seems to draw loose threads together, although the final bars are rather inconclusive. Outstanding performance – Ax, poetic and virtuoso, many performances notched up before recording; Dohnanyi, opts to stick with his preferred antiphonal violins, double basses left; as he’s not one for the musical soft option, his interest in Adams means something.
The Halle recordings offer a soundstage both deep and vivid, which suggests the Cleveland taping is a tad opaque at the back of the orchestra; certainly truthful to Ax’s sensitive touch though. Lollapalooza drove me to distraction. One five-note phrase over and over, a riot of texture towards the end; hear it once and contemplate if Adams could have done more except raise the ante.
The 13-minute Slonimsky’s Earbox was terrific on a first encounter. It still is! Juicily complex, it teems with ideas, variety and new departures; for me, Adams’s (up to a point) negation of repetition, lulling the listener into drowsy acceptance, is welcome. This tribute to Nicolas Slonimsky (1894-1995), composer, author and conductor, a champion of Ives, Cowell and Ruggles, requires active listening in this red-hot performance.

 

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