Kent Nagano’s Almost Arresting Adams

Review by: Victor Carr Jr

johnadams

Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 10

John Adams’ Harmonielehre has achieved near-standard repertoire status, and given that it premiered more than three decades ago in 1985, it can hardly be considered “new music” anymore. With at least five recordings to its credit, it’s perhaps not surprising that the bloom has begun to fade from the rose.

At least that’s the impression given by Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, who offer a performance lacking the freshness and excitement found in Edo de Waart’s premiere recording with the San Francisco Symphony. Is this due to merely the passage of time? Not really, as Michael Tilson Thomas’ recent recording with the same orchestra astonishes with even more power and precision. You get the sense that this is a somewhat difficult piece to play, and requires exceptional concentration to pull off successfully. (The SFSO players have this music in their bones, and it shows.)

As for Nagano, he excels in the work’s more quiet and ruminative passages, emphasizing the lush, luminous colors of the First Movement’s dreamy central section, and the magical Close Encounters of the Third Kind-ish beginning of the Meister Eckhardt and Quackie finale. But this doesn’t make up for his dull-edged rendering of the normally arresting first-movement conclusion, or the disappointingly muted triumph in the work’s final bars.

Short Ride in a Fast Machine is even more regularly featured on concert programs, and there are several excellent recordings, including those by De Waart, Rattle, and Thomas. Nagano and his forces do muster the requisite energy to bring off the piece, but without the sense of daring found in the best performances.

It’s a little odd that this album begins with Adams’ subdued and meditative Common Tones in Simple Time, leaving the more dramatic works for last. But here again is where Nagano shines, drawing you into the music’s glowing textures and hypnotic atmosphere. (Maybe this should have been released as a single.) The Montreal strings and winds play expertly, as do the brass, especially when Nagano lets them off his tight leash. Decca’s recording offers spaciousness and wide dynamic range. It’s all very nice, but not the one you want.



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Recording Details:

Album Title: The John Adams Album
Reference Recording: De Waart (Nonesuch); Thomas (SFSO); Robertson (St. Louis Symphony)

  • ADAMS, JOHN:
    Harmonielehre; Common Tones in Simple Time; Short Ride in a Fast Machine

    Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, Kent Nagano


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