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John Adams: Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? - China Gates
Yuja Wang (piano), Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel (conductor)
Recording: Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, The United States (November 2019) – 31’
Deutsche Grammophon 48382897 (Distributed by Universal Music) – Booklet in English and German

New works by John Adams continue to be major events. Deutsche Grammophon has seemingly replaced Nonesuch in churning out Adams albums, and with the collaboration with two of the most high profile young artists on the yellow label’s roster, the expectations are certainly high. A piano concerto in all but name, Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? is Adams’ third go at the genre, in which he has already written a modern classic, Century Rolls (his second). His first, Eros Piano, is more akin to a one-movement lyrical work for soloist and orchestra. There’s also Grand Pianola Music, a delightfully gaudy double piano concerto, from quite early in the composer’s career.

The composer states the catalyst of the work was the line of text which would become the title, suggesting “a 'Totentanz', only not of the Lisztian manner, but more of funk-invested American-style. The continuous, three-section piece begins with a solid rock piano power chord gesture which is then put through Adams’ by-now-familiar rhythmic manipulations. After the virtuosic, motoric opening section, the second part is, in a nod to convention, slower and more lyrical. Paroxysmal gestures in the piano dance around shared monophony and hovering string clouds. This transitions seamlessly into the third section, which is an energetic romp to the triumphant, upbeat ending. It’s hard to say it’s all funk-like, except maybe in a very polite interpretation of that style. Herbie Hancock’s live performances are an instructive side-by-side. In all, Adams’ piece is a conventional structure, filled with rhythms and gestures familiar from Adams’ previous works.

It’s difficult, and perhaps pointless, to say whether the piece is more or less successful, engaging, or memorable than the composer’s other piano concertos, but I personally found myself less than engaged and not eager to return to listen again. This is no fault of the performance, which is stunning in its execution. Yuja Wang has utmost technical command of the instrument, and Dudamel and his LA Phil shred Adams’ rushing scales, spasmodic jolts, and unison jabs while providing luxurious sheen in the second movement’s suspended moments. In the end, what is missing is true memorability. One of Adams’ breakthroughs and strongest musical traits, first mastered 35 years ago in Harmonielehre, is his ability to not only conjure up a brilliant quasi-minimalist texture, but to lay over those textured glorious melodic lines of Schubertian length and elegance. Not so, here. The devil must indeed have kept all the tunes.

Yuja Wang’s performance of Adam’s China Gates is a good idea for an encore, but her performance is over-romanticized. Adams writes in the performance notes to the piece: “Special attention should be given to equalizing the volume of both hands so that no line is ever louder than another. In this way the intertwining of patterns can be most successfully realized.” There are scant dynamic markings in the score, and a complete lack of crescendo and diminuendo marks. The piece is one of the closest Adams came to ‘classical’ minimalism. Wang, however, imparts her own accentuations, swells and recessions, and rubato to the piece.

In the end, the album is a nice listen, but not near the top of a very strong and deep John Adams discography. Whether the piece, which the editors at one streaming service implore is “destined to become a modern class” remains to be seen. In the end, the Adams piano concerto for me will remain Century Rolls, which possesses many of the traits the current work does, but arrests the listener with its zip and originality in an altogether successful manner.

Marcus Karl Maroney




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