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Saturday, August 12, 2017

John Adams - Harmonielehre; Short Ride in a Fast Machine (Michael Tilson Thomas)


Composer: John Adams
  1. Harmonielehre: I.
  2. Harmonielehre: II. The Anfortas Wound
  3. Harmonielehre: III. Meister Eckhardt and Quackie
  4. Short Ride in a Fast Machine

San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor

Date: 2012
Label: SFS Media



John Adams’s 1985 Harmonielehre was and still is a landmark work, not only in the composer’s output, but also within the larger scope of late 20th-century orchestral music. With Harmonielehre, Adams definitively demonstrated that Minimalist techniques, previously thought by many to be not only a passing fad, but an emotionally vacuous one at that, could be used to create music of great power and deeply felt human expression. Yes, all of the Minimalist clichés are here in abundance, but rather than use them as entities unto themselves, Adams integrates them into a musical fabric based upon long, achingly beautiful melodic lines and a clearly defined architectural structure. Think Minimalism combined with Sibelius and Wagner, with some touches of early Schoenbergian Expressionism thrown in for good measure. A detailed description of the work can be found on the composer’s webpage, earbox.com. When Harmonielehre burst onto the scene in 1985, it created a sensation and received numerous performances worldwide; however, unlike other works from that time that made a big initial splash, the piece has held onto a solid place within the regularly performed repertoire. It probably goes without saying that I consider the work to be a true masterpiece in the fullest sense of the word.

Harmonielehre , essentially a three-movement symphony in all but name, was commissioned and premiered by the San Francisco Symphony when Adams was its composer-in-residence. Music director Edo de Waart and the orchestra premiered the work, both in concert and on a 1985 Nonesuch recording (79115-2), made just three days after its debut performance. By my count, this is the work’s fifth recording and the second by the San Franciscans. Others include a powerhouse performance by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Simon Rattle (EMI 5-55051-2) and a solid though somewhat less compelling offering from the St. Louis Symphony conducted by David Robertson (available as a digital download from the orchestra’s webpage and on iTunes and Amazon). There is also one by the Litauische Philharmonie conducted by Juozas Domarkas (available on two separate Denon releases), which I have not heard.

Comparisons between the de Waart, Rattle, and this new version from Michael Tilson Thomas are illuminating. The de Waart and Rattle interpretations are virtually identical, but Rattle boasts superior orchestral execution and a more transparent, texturally clear recording. Likewise, Tilson Thomas’s San Francisco Symphony is also superior to that of de Waart. De Waart’s orchestra was a fine, proficient ensemble; Tilson Thomas’s is a well-oiled, virtuoso machine. Further, Tilson Thomas offers the only significant interpretive difference from the previous versions. This difference is most apparent in the work’s second movement, “The Amfortas Wound,” where Tilson Thomas emphasizes its sinister, darkly hued undertones, and in the third movement, “Meister Eckhardt and Quackie,” where MTT’s more relaxed, dreamlike approach (which calls to mind some of John Williams’s atmospheric extraterrestrial film music, not that this is a bad thing) stands in stark contrast to de Wart’s and Rattle’s livelier, playful, more dance-like treatment.

If someone were to hold a gun to my head and order me to choose just one recording, it would be Rattle, not only for the magnificent performance of Harmonielehre , but also for the disc’s generous program, which also includes Adams’s The Chairman Dances (from Nixon in China ), the fanfare Tromba Lontana , and the exhilarating Short Ride in a Fast Machine , the latter also included on the present disc. But no one who loves this work will want to be without this resplendent new offering from Tilson Thomas and his superlative orchestra. Sonically, this live SACD is characterized by lucid, X-ray-like detailing, huge dynamic and frequency ranges, and an almost three-dimensional soundstage with plenty of ambient width and depth, though I could do without the applause at the end of the performance. An indispensible disc and a Want List shoo-in.

-- Merlin Patterson, FANFARE

More reviews:
BBC Music Magazine  PERFORMANCE: **** / RECORDING: ****


John Adams (born February 15, 1947 in Worcester, Massachusetts) is an American composer of classical music and opera. He studied composition under Leon Kirchner, Roger Sessions, Earl Kim, and David Del Tredici. The music of John Adams is usually categorized as minimalist or post-minimalist, although in interview he has categorized himself as a 'post-style' composer. His works include Harmonielehre (1985), Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986), On the Transmigration of Souls (2002) and Shaker Loops (1978). His operas include Nixon in China (1987), The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) and Doctor Atomic (2005).


Michael Tilson Thomas (born December 21, 1944) is an American conductor, pianist and composer. He studied piano with John Crown, composition and conducting under Ingolf Dahl. As a student of Friedelind Wagner, Tilson Thomas was a Musical Assistant and Assistant Conductor at the Bayreuth Festival. He is currently music director of the San Francisco Symphony (since 1995), and artistic director of the New World Symphony Orchestra (which he founded in 1987). He was also the principal conductor of the London Symphony from 1988 to 1995, and since 1995, held the title of principal guest conductor.


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