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"The John Adams Edition"
John Adams: Harmonielehre – Short Ride in a Fast Machine – City Noir – Lollapalooza - Scheherazade.2 – The Wound-Dresser – The Gospel According to the Other Mary

Georg Nigl (baritone), Kelly O’Connor (Mary Magdalene), Tamara Mumford (Martha), Peter Hoare (Lazarus), Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, Nathan Medley (countertenors), Timothy McAllister (alto saxophone), Leila Josefowicz (violin), Rundfunkchor Berlin, Daniel Reuss (chorus master), Berlin Philharmonic, John Adams, Alan Gilbert, Gustavo Dudamel, Kirill Petrenko (conductors)
Recording: Philharmonie Berlin, Germany (September and December 2016; January, March, and June 2017) – CD: 307’; DVD Blu-ray: 336’
Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings BPHR 170141 – Booklet in English, German

This impressively performed, recorded, produced, and packaged paean to John Adams belongs in the collection of every listener with even a passing interest in his music. The works included span his entire career and, when listened to chronologically, give an instructive insight into the development of Adams’ style. Harmonielehre and The Gospel According to the Other Mary are two large-scale masterpieces, and having them surrounded by shorter showpieces (Short Ride in a Fast Machine and Lollapalooza) and longer but more problematic works (The Wound-Dresser, City Noir, and Scheherazade.2) makes this «John Adams Edition» a worthwhile investment.

Short Ride in a Fast Machine and Lollapalooza are great fun, but emotionally monolithic, each playing themselves and needing essentially nothing but a capable pulse from the podium. Alan Gilbert leads the confident Berlin players through both with rhythmic acuity and brassy panache.

Adams’ breakthrough orchestral work, Harmonielehre is available on several superb commercial releases, including Simon Rattle’s premiere recording (EMI) and David Robertson’s St. Louis reading, on that orchestra’s house label. The composer himself steps up to conduct on the present release, and crafts an exciting if not superlative reading of the work. Robertson’s incisive recording finds more propulsive momentum in the piece, especially in the first movement and in a weightier, more exciting final peroration.

Adams also conducts Scheherazade.2, a work also recorded by Robertson in St. Louis. Leila Josefowicz is the common soloist for this symphony-tone poem-concerto hybrid that starts with engaging, exotic colors but too soon grows to feel a bit bloated. The Berlin performance has Josefowicz slightly more forward in the mix, but otherwise the energy and orchestral playing in this and Robertson’s St. Louis account are on par with one another. It will be interesting to see if this work is absorbed into the repertoire in the same manner as Adams’ earlier, masterful, and (by comparison) streamlined Violin Concerto.

Kirill Petrenko is not the first conductor who comes to mind when one thinks of John Adams, but his searching rendition of the dark-hued The Wound-Dresser, with Georg Nigl’s full-toned, accented English (stirring echoes of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in Britten’s War Requiem), is a welcome addition both to the set and to the discography of this work.

This leaves the jewel of the collection, a stunning performance of The Gospel According to the Other Mary. The same solo vocalists that are heard on Gustavo Dudamel’s Los Angeles recording (Deutsche Grammophon) appear here, but there is more heft in choral numbers from the Rundfunkchor Berlin and a darker string and brass sound from the Berlin orchestra. The piece is fascinating and shows perhaps a new development in Adams’ music, with more frequent clarity of texture and homophonic dissonances, bringing to mind the large ensemble works of Louis Andriessen. Perhaps Gospel comes across best because, despite it’s English libretto, it’s the most “European” score on the program.

The entirety of the audio program is also included on two Blu-ray discs, with excellent videography from inside the Philharmonie. Interviews with Berlin hornist Sarah Willis and Gospel librettist Peter Sellars illuminate Adams’ work, and the composer’s life and working process are further explored in the documentary Short Rides with John Adams. The packaging is luxurious, with a thorough booklet including information on all works, an essay by New Yorker columnist Alex Ross, full texts and translations, and personnel listing of the orchestra, all gorgeously designed by Wolfgang Tillmans. The set is quite affordable from the Berlin Philharmonic’s website, and is also available as digital downloads. In sum, anyone whose interest is even mildly piqued shouldn’t hesitate.

Marcus Karl Maroney




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