Dawn Upshaw (soprano)
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (mezzo-soprano)
Willard White (baritone)
Theatre of Voices
Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Kent Nagano
Reviewed by: Steve Lomas
Reviewed: January 2002
CD No: NONESUCH 7559-79634-2 (2 CDs)
A year on from its first performance on 15 December 2000 at the Chatelet in Paris, John Adams’s ‘El Nino’ has acquired a reputation as a masterpiece, its every performance an ‘event’. It would be easy to assume this is due to El Nino’s multimedia conception; this marvellous recording amply demonstrates that Adams has achieved a powerful distillation of his musical language which speaks boldly and movingly to anyone with ears to hear.
Like many great works of art, it is difficult to summarise in exactly what ‘El Nino’ is. It seems to attract the distinctly old-fashioned description of oratorio, although it was premiered as a quasi-theatrical work incorporating acting, dance and film. Adams seems to have conceived it as a latter-day Messiah but the differences in the two works’ standpoint in relation to the Nativity story are telling. Gone are the monolithic certainties of Handel’s vision. As a composer living in California, where a thousand different cultures rub shoulders, Adams instinctively tells the story from several perspectives. The text is a patchwork quilt of relevant passages from the New Testament gospels and apocryphal New Testament writings, overlaid with commentary by Latin American poets (mostly set in the original Spanish) on the universal aspects of the Nativity, centred on the theme of birth. The power and beauty of the poetry by such figures as Rosario Castellanos will be a revelation to many people. Specifically, these poets give a female, perhaps feminist view of the subject. Birth is definitely not romanticised. This is a Messiah of someone who was in Berkeley in the early ‘70s, spiritual homeland of the counter-culture and of a composer who says that his own religious beliefs are “shaky and unformed”.
Musically, the work is equally pluralistic. Adams is a musical magpie who can borrow the most disparate and sometimes arcane influences and fold them seamlessly into his own style. There are echoes here of organum, Bach, Handel, Britten and Part. In both conception and style, there is also a parallel with the near-contemporaneous Quickening of James MacMillan, whether coincidental or not. British listeners might hear occasional overtones of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast in the choral and orchestral writing (try ‘And When They Were Departed’ or ‘And He Slew All The Children’ if you doubt me!). The most characteristic sounds however are purest Adams. Stamping minor triads. Pulsing undercurrents. A gently descending scale that’s like a fall of light snow. Delirious swirlings that obliterate everything like a sandstorm (the movement entitled ‘Shake The Heavens’ reminds of another religious ‘shaking’ in a different desert as explored in Adams’s Shaker Loops).
The work divides into two parts, pre-natal and post-natal, as it were with a text sung by soprano, mezzo-soprano and baritone soloists, and a trio of countertenors and chorus. As in Stravinsky’s Les Noces or Peter Maxwell Davies’s Job, characters in the drama are not allocated to particular singers, rather the text is allowed to “blossom over all available resources”, to use Davies’s description. This, coupled with continuity between individual settings, powerfully unifies the work, particularly in the second part.As if to present us immediately with an image of birth and perhaps also a premonition of the crucifixion, the first section, ‘I Sing Of A Maiden’, opens with orchestral figuration suggestive of the beginning of Adams’s Harmonielehre – those hammering minor triads again. The first entry of the chorus likewise recalls the beginning of Harmonium in its gradual build-up of pulsing vowel sounds. The harmonic ambiguity that starts to overlay these straightforward gestures however bespeaks the Adams of today. The ensuing ‘Hail, Mary, Gracious!’ introduces the countertenor trio, whose characteristic mode of delivery is note-for-syllable close harmony in rhythmic unison, a consciously archaic effect (is Adams familiar with Britten’s Journey of the Magi, I wonder?).
The first Spanish setting, ‘La Anunciacion’, presents a now quivering, now radiant Latinate lyricism. Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s creamy and seductive vocal tones are perfect. Likewise Dawn Upshaw’s open and direct style is well-suited to the dramatic incantation of ‘Magnificat’ and Willard White’s handsome, relaxed tones might have been tailor-made for the conversational, recitative-like writing of much of his part (or rather, the other way round). Elsewhere in the first part, ‘The Babe Leaped In Her Womb’, has a very distinctive pentatonic melody line which recalls the chants of Hildegard of Bingen, whose ‘O Quam Preciosa’ surely enough is incorporated into ‘The Christmas Star’ which closes the first part. This is an urgent setting for all the forces that eventually coalesces into an ecstatically swaying tutti, before it collapses exhausted. A child is born.
The second part opens with a most original section, ‘Pues Mi Dios Ha Nacido A Penar’, in which a slow, entranced vocal and choral line is overlaid with Stravinskian rhythmic chatter on solo strings. The two coexist perfectly. This compositional gambit might be said to derive from the early work of Steve Reich, where rapid figuration is underpinned by long, slow harmonies. If so, this is yet another example of how the ‘tabula rasa’ of minimalism has in the hands of Adams evolved down the years into an enormously supple musical language with little overt connection to its source.
The settings that follow introduce an element of drama by describing Herod’s plot to capture the Christ-child, reflected in relentless, churning ostinati and stalking bass lines. This reaches its apogee in ‘Memorial De Tlatelolco’, an intensely dramatic, quasi-operatic section bringing us into events of more recent history. Prior to this, ‘The Three Kings’ is an achingly beautiful song presenting the three countertenors as individuals rather than a unit. The final section rhymes with the end of the first part in bringing together two discrete settings, in this case an ‘apocryphal’ text of “Pseudo-Matthew” that is counterpoised magically with a simple Hispanic folk-like song gently chanted by a children’s chorus. The fade-out, with the harmony reduced to the barest outline on guitar, is a masterstroke.
The recorded performance has the same kind of burning urgency and authority as Britten’s own recording of War Requiem. The soloists have lived through the first performances of their roles. The contributions of the chorus and orchestra under Nagano – for who this music is central repertoire – are electrifying. The balance and presence of the sound is stunning. This is without doubt a most important and exciting release.