Song of the Nightingale
Violin Concerto No.1
Symphony No.4 Fugue
Pekka Kuusisto (violin)
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 23 November, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Currently Artist in Association with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, John Adams has the opportunity to present the music of others as well as his own works (hardly an unknown quantity in London these days).
Thus the first half of this concert featured relatively early works by near-contemporaries Stravinsky and Bartók. The former’s symphonic poem Song of the Nightingale received an account sensitive to its myriad timbres, but which ironed-out many of its rhythmical subtleties so that the extrovert opening section had an aggression more akin to mid-1920s Prokofiev (perhaps an analogy Adams was keen to point out?), while the images of solitude and death in its later stages had a certain dourness but little pathos. Excellent playing from the BBCSO’s winds couldn’t disguise the rather flat overall impression.
Bartók’s long unheard, and still seldom revived, First Violin Concerto was the highlight of the evening – largely due to Pekka Kuusisto’s handling of the solo part. Enamoured of dedicatee Stefi Geyer as he was at this time, Bartók consciously eschewed easy virtuosity: the solo part alternately wreathing its way around, then darting in and out of the orchestra its two respective movements. Moreover, Kuusisto’s fine-spun but never enervated tone is never in danger of over-projecting, so the sustained rapture of the Andante (more familiar as the first of the Op.5 Portraits) and the quizzical humour of the Allegro – Bartók in a rare vein of uninhibited playfulness – never felt self-conscious or self- regarding. Attentive conducting from Adams ensured the piece had the rhythmic precision it needs.
Following the interval, Adams was awarded a Fellowship from the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters. His account of the third-movement fugue from Charles Ives’s Fourth Symphony seemed almost a cultural calling-card from across the Atlantic. Flowingly paced, and aware of the anxiety behind the (to quote the composer) “reaction into formalism and ritualism”, it confirmed Adams’s identity with this music (his complete performance with the Ensemble Modern Orchestra is worth seeking out).
There followed Adams the composer, in the shape of his 1981 choral work Harmonium. Along with Shaker Loops and Grand Pianola Music, this was the work that established Adams as a leading light of what is still referred to as “post-Minimalism”, and made a sizeable impact in its day (not least on your reviewer) for the apparent breadth of its expressive focus.
Twenty years on, and it is hard not to feel that a poem with the emotional ambiguity of John Donne’s “Negative Love” warrants a deeper response than this series of rhythmically evened-out crescendos around the note D, or that the sing-song functionalism of the vocal writing in Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” smacks of the mundane (though the passages of Ravelian vocalise are evocative in context). The cumulative transition to her “Wild Nights” still creates a fair emotional frisson – while the setting itself conveys something of the ecstasy, though little of the anguish, of Dickinson’s poetic musing.
The BBC Symphony Chorus sang with lusty commitment and no mean sensitivity, though the balance between voices and instruments was not always to the benefit of verbal intelligibility, and the orchestral response lacked the last degree of sonic sheen this music ideally requires; although far lesser a performance wouldn’t have prevent the standing ovation that ensued. A distinctive statement of intent at the time, Harmonium now sounds like the expression of a well-established Americana – suggesting that John Adams, rather then being the John Ford of his era, may well be its Steven Spielberg.