Naïve and Sentimental Music
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded October 25-26, 1999 Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, LA
Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield
Reviewed: September 2002
CD No: NONESUCH 7559-79636-2
Composed in 1998 and premièred by dedicatee Esa-Pekka Salonen and his Los Angeles Philharmonic (one of four who had commissioned it with Ensemble Modern and the Sydney and Vancouver Symphonys) on 19 February 1999, John Adams’s Naïve and Sentimental Music is only released this autumn.
With London only hearing it for the first time at last year’s Proms (beaten by the Edinburgh Festival in giving the UK première, with the Ensemble Modern under Adams himself) it is curious that such a major score has taken such a long time to percolate across the continents. And have no doubt: this is a major score.
There are those who will tell you it is a symphony in disguise; others say that its adoptive title (from Schiller’s Essay “On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry”) indicates a looser structure – such views may or may not be true. Indeed there are others that see Adams as being far too artful in his writing of naïve music so dismiss the work out of hand.And yet, listening again and again to this recording having enjoyed the Proms performance so much (under Adams, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with whom he is to become Artist in Association in time for the UK première of El Niño in June 2003) – there is an inexorable inner logic that makes this one of the most completely satisfying of contemporary orchestral scores.
John Adams is one of the few composers – Magnus Lindberg and Sir Harrison Birtwistle are others – who have risen to the challenge of writing successfully for orchestra in contemporary times. Adams and Lindberg are closer to ’tonal’ music than most, and Adams has already given us such a classic work as Harmonielehre which revisited Schoenbergian late-romanticism from a 1980s American west coast perspective (Adams conducts this with the LSO on 20 November at the Barbican). There are similar musical back-references in Naïve and Sentimental Music – the opening sinewy and long-breathed theme for flute on its return sounds as if straight out of Mahler’s ’Abschied’ from Das Lied von der Erde, while there is some surging string passages in the final movement which are distinctly Nielsen-esque. Ingram Marshall, who provides the English only programme note, also reveals a hidden love for Bruckner symphonies shared with John Adams, which offers an intriguing aspect into the work.
Indeed, it can be argued that Bruckner’s symphonic edifices are the epitome of “naïve and sentimental music” – the difference is between the naïve – a natural, unforced lyricism – and sentimental – a knowing or artful attempt at naivety. For those that argue that Adams is too knowing to be naïve, Marshall points out that he knows he is too knowing (by which, I assume, he means that the two ’knowings’ cancel each other out). I’m not here too concerned about the semantics, but about the music, and it seems to me that the opening strumming accompaniment and the flute melody are simply raw music, not obligingly fitting into strict harmonic or rhythmical rules. In that sense it is “naïve” and, in its return after two major climaxes, it is both affecting and heartfelt.
The second movement – ’Mother of the Man’ – is a gloss on Busoni’s Berceuse élégiaque with an important guitar solo (David Tanenbaum), later taken by the bassoon. I have heard some comparison with Copland’s Quiet City, which seems rather perverse: it is closer to Mahler’s famous ’Adagietto’ but less overlaid with emotion (perhaps therefore more naïve). The theme unfolds over a soft bed of alternating chords, which build (perhaps in Brucknerian vein) in great pulses, before the textures clear to allow the guitar back at the end.
The final movement – ’Chain to the Rhythm’ – is the most typical of Adams: motivic cells building up to great exciting climaxes with energy dissipating after exploding across the orchestra. Quite literally, the rhythm starts a chain reaction. But with its final rise, the great brass chord is not conclusive; it is as if the work is brought to a halt mid-argument with an unresolved cadence.
Not surprisingly Esa-Pekka Salonen and the LA Philharmonic, allowed out from the Sony stable, are in fine form. Recorded in a natural acoustic (neither naïve nor sentimental!) they had the advantage of having a number of performances under their belt before laying down this disc. I find this music exciting and beautiful, fresh and invigorating.It is not the only path for music, but in Adams’s hands it is an extremely fertile one. For me this music does not pall; it grows with each listening, and while 44 minutes is short-measure, one can counter argue that the artistic decision for it to stand alone is the right one. For the pleasure it has already given me, and for the undoubted pleasure it still has to offer, I am wont to say this is one of my discs of the year.