John Adams Provides Thunder, Desperation and Pure Adrenaline

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Every die-hard fan of contemporary symphonic music knows who John Adams is – composer of Nixon in China, recipient of classical music's highest honors – but both his bouncy syncopations and his Mahlerian outpourings of Romantic sentiment also make him a terrific gateway drug for newcomers to the scene.

Fortunately for them, a new album by Peter Oundjian and the Scottish National Symphony Orchestra offers three selections from Adams for large orchestra in one convenient dose. Here are pieces from his Nixon-era ascent, namely the grandiose Harmonielehre and the crowd-pleasing fanfare Short Ride in a Fast Machine, and the much more recent Doctor Atomic Symphony, a suite of themes from his opera of the same name.

Any recording of the Doctor Atomic Symphony faces stiff competition against the original recording, by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra under David Robertson. But this new recording finds something surprising and new in this score: real warmth. Where the St. Louis strings are mic'd and EQ'd for maximum bite, their Scottish counterparts are given room to glow, and the flowing lyricism that Oundjian's brass soloists – standing in for the opera singers – bring to their melodies reveals the sorrow lurking just behind the music's terror and desperation. 

Harmonielehre is a big, heavy beast, from its thunderous opening chord to its second movement's orchestral cri de coeur to Adams's signature finish in the third-movement climax, but Oundjian demonstrates that it can be light and graceful when it has to be. Lighter still is his Short Ride in a Fast Machine, which in his exceedingly fast, exceedingly short interpretation is a musical EpiPen, an emergency jolt of pure adrenaline.

The silence that follows these three show-stopping works is a little unsettling: they seem incomplete without the sound of a roaring ovation at the end.

 

'John Adams: Harmonielehre; Doctor Atomic Symphony'
Chandos | Released Oct. 16, 2013