John Adams’s Complete Piano Music

0 of 5 stars

Phrygian Gates
American Berserk
China Gates
Hallelujah Junction*

Ralph van Raat (piano) with Maarten van Veen (piano)*

Recorded 7 & 8 January 2006 in Potton Hall, Suffolk

Reviewed by: Rob Witts

Reviewed: July 2007
CD No: NAXOS 8.559285
Duration: 52 minutes

John Adams’s music for one or two pianos forms an attractive CD programme and one ripe for inclusion in the excellent Naxos series of “American Classics”. It’s an interesting journey from the relatively ‘pure’ minimalism of China Gates and Phrygian Gates, dating from the late 1970s and among his earliest works to the gleeful eclecticism of his more recent pieces.

Phrygian Gates is a really epic work that has a lot in common with Steve Reich’s subsequent attempts to inject the process-music aesthetic with a shot of tonal drama. The piano writing is a shifting mass of textures; the open fifths of the opening gradually deepen into rich shimmering chords suggestive of Californian sunshine. The use of filmic ‘jump-cuts’ in the music is more extreme than in Reich, and there is an engaging sense of development between different layers of the music, from the fast-moving figuration to the longer-term harmonic motion.

Where Phrygian Gates is agitated, China Gates is subdued and reflective. Unlike the larger work, the quaver figuration remains constant throughout; all that changes are the patterns and note groupings and the pensive harmonies.

Ralph van Raat. Photograph Marco BorggreveFlash forward 20 years and American Berserk bears the influence of Conlon Nancarrow’s chaotic studies for player piano; there are the same hocketing bass-lines and crazed slalom boogie-woogie interjections. Meanwhile, Hallelujah Junction initially recalls Adams’s own Grand Pianola Music in its exuberant tintinnabulation; Adams ties these to spiky rhythms and gradual change processes, but the piece is really all about the ecstatic sound of two great big pianos crashing away together.

This and the other pieces are served adequately by Naxos’s recorded sound that is clear at the expense of depth. I would have preferred more stereo separation in Hallelujah Junction and there is what sounds like a sloppy edit in Phrygian Gates at 20’33”, but this is a decent overview of Adams’s piano writing (“Complete” at the time of recording!). First choice in this repertoire remains the brilliant Nicolas Hodges and Rolf Hind on Nonesuch, but this offers a decent budget alternative.

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