Attacca String Quartet's Hungry, Bold and Biting Take on John Adams

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Not content to be one of our most influential and accomplished living composers, John Adams is also, as demonstrated by the Attacca String Quartet's new survey of his chamber music, an above-average titler. Before the first note sounds, a glance at the program hints at what the listener is in for.

The "John" in the title of John Adams's first string quartet, John's Book of Alleged Dances refers, obviously, to Adams's own name—and, less obviously, to John Cage, whose music for prepared piano is sampled to make the kooky beats accompanying each movement. The "alleged" suggests the off-kilter character of some of these movements, a suggestion confirmed by dances called, e.g., "Dogjam," "Toot Nipple," and "Stubble Crotchet."

The title of his second quartet, Fellow Traveler, written to serenade stage director and longtime Adams collaborator Peter Sellars at Sellars's 50th birthday party, suggests at once Sellars's controversial politics, the long, strange trip that has been their operatic career, and the Communist destination of their first outing together, Nixon in China. Recorded here for the first time, Fellow Traveler mashes up bright, pulsing themes from Nixon's first act into a blazing little showpiece.

But most telling of all is the name of Adams's third string quartet: String Quartet. One of his most unremittingly earnest and straightforward efforts in any genre, it sounds like the composer's conscious attempt to insert himself into the history of the form, and the result is immensely satisfying. The Attacca Quartet manages not only to pull off the individual moments of drama, but to piece them convincingly into each movement's huge formal arcs.

These pieces weren't written for Attacca, but for the Kronos Quartet and the St. Lawrence String Quartet—difficult acts to follow. The Kronos Dances are clean but oh-so-stylish; the St. Lawrence Quartet's Quartet is tough and lovely. The Attacca Quartet are much younger, which pays off with a startlingly innocent rendition of, for instance, the Alleged Dance "Pavane (She's So Fine)." But they're also hungrier, their tempos bold and their pizzicato biting, which lets them bring Adams's rhythms to life like never before.

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