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Robert R. Reilly
InsideCatholic.com, February 2008

More on American Classical Music
by Robert R. Reilly, 2/29/08

 

Last month, I began talking about modern American classical music. The impetus was the new releases in the stellar Naxos American Classics series, as well as some other new CDs of American music. As I said, I doubt that many readers will have heard of many of the composers. I spent most of the column on the reasons why: the consequences of what happened to music in the 20th century when it eviscerated tonality, and turned off audiences. That struggle is over; tonality has triumphed, and with it melody.

The great value of the Naxos series is its demonstration of this fact. Naxos is restoring our musical heritage to us. It may seem a bit odd that a German, Klaus Heymann, the founder of Naxos, is the one doing it, but bless him for it. In the American Classics Naxos catalogue, you will find some of the big names of American music -- Samuel Barber, Paul Creston, Aaron Copland, David Diamond, Roy Harris, Walter Piston, William Schuman -- in impeccable performances. I have covered many of these releases over the years; I only want to remind you that they are there (see www.NAXOS.com). These are the composers who did not cave in to the ideology of amnesia and were able to achieve some prominence despite it.

Three new releases remind me of the fairly recent history of how the recovery of music took place in part. What began emerging from under the rubble of twelve-tone music back in the 1960s was Minimalism. In it, tonality returned with a vengeance but was, at first, more like a patient from a trauma ward gradually recovering consciousness. Minimalism represents a return to reality, but it is the reality of an emergency room attempting to stabilize the patient after a terrible beating. First, maintain and monitor the pulse; keep the breathing steady. Regularity and repetition are the keys to recovery. And that is what we hear -- the steady, monotonous pulsing of the heart. Minimalism is music slowly, ever so slowly, coming out of a state of shock, as it patiently puts the elements of music back together. There is a certain zombie-like quality to it.

Ars Nova, distributed by Naxos, gives us a mesmerizing performance of Terry Riley's In C, considered by some to be the Magna Carta of Minimalism. It is a somewhat in-your-face assertion of a single pitch, in C, against the pitchless music of the avant garde. This work from 1964, here performed by Ars Nova Copenhagen and the Percurama Percussion Ensemble, under Paul Hillier, deploys 53 melodic patterns that can be played or sung in sequence by any number of singers or instruments. Hillier uses a vocal group and a percussion ensemble consisting of eight marimba players and a vibraphonist (who also doubles on Bali gong). A pattern can be repeated any number of times before proceeding to the next one -- in other words, forever. You may be hypnotized or bored, depending on your tolerance for trances. In any case, it is essential listening for those who wish to understand how music made it back from the grave.

The two other leading Minimalists, Steve Reich (b. 1936) and Philip Glass (b. 1937), have also received new releases that illustrate Minimalism's therapeutic value, if limited musical interest. Reich's music on the CPO label (CPO 777 337-2) -- Sextet, Eight Lines, and, especially, Piano Phases, with the London Steve Reich Ensemble -- seems to keep getting "stuck" for long periods in order to dramatize the moment when it becomes unstuck. This works depending on how much patience you have. Reich breaks the monotony with syncopated rhythms, a sense of humor, and some fun. His music can be like a get-well balloon in the recovery room. The fun starts in the first movement of the Sextet with a locomotive imitation and continues with what sometimes sounds like a typewriter in the fourth.

Philip Glass shows what happens when you try to make something bigger out of the limited techniques Minimalism employs. I enjoyed some of Glass's early works and found his opera on Akhnaten intriguing. However, his endless use of chugging ostinatos wore me out a long time ago. The new Naxos release (8.559325), featuring The Light and Heroes Symphony, performed by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, under Marin Alsop, does not reconvert me. I find The Light light; pleasant, but nothing more. Glass keeps trying to write big-idea music that never seems to get out of the rehab ward.

The composer who broke out of Minimalism and promised a complete return to health is John Adams (b. 1947). A new Naxos CD (8.559285) brings his complete piano music together, with pianist Ralph van Raat, in beautiful, spirited performances. Even at his most Minimalist, Adams knew how to create lovely, even exhilarating music, as his early Phrygian Gates demonstrates. The much later Hallelujah Junction (1996) shows that he has never quite shaken his Minimalist roots or stopped aiming at the ecstatic. It was in orchestral music and opera, however, that Adams made his reputation. Through it, he became the most popular composer of his generation. I will never forget the impact of his Harmonielehre from the mid-1980s. Here was a huge orchestral work that showed that the recovery period of Minimalism was over, with all the resources of music triumphantly restored.

I have kept waiting for Adams to do it again. I suppose that is why I feel disappointment at his new release on Nonesuch (79857-2), which pretentiously places two works, The Dharma at Big Sur and My Father Knew Charles Ives, on two CDs, though they would easily fit on one. Charles Ives (1874-1954) is surely the single most overrated American composer, and I am not attracted by the conceit that Adams's father knew him. In the first movement of the Ives piece, Adams's evocation of him borders on cliché, as it includes an imitation of two bands passing each other and the cacophony they produce -- a signature experience in Ives's life that led to his embrace of and delight in dissonance. Yes, I know dissonance can be fun but, please, it is time to move on. This not to say that some of Adams’s pastiche in this work is not fun; it is.

The Big Sur piece is a concerto for electric violin and orchestra, the second movement of which is a tribute to Terry Riley. Some of the sonorities are quite beautiful but, to me, the keening kind of sound made by the electric violin can come close to irritating and, worse, near to kitsch when it becomes syrupy, which it occasionally does here. I do not think there is enough spine in this work to keep it from being high-level mood music, although Adams achieves some real grip in the thrilling, almost overwhelming climax. If only the rest of the work deserved it. At O'Hare airport, I ventured into a music shop to kill some time. I was disturbed that classical music was lumped together in a bin labeled "classical and new age." I am sorry to say that is where Adams's new release belongs.

As I never tire of pointing out, there were some composers who never gave in to the prevailing amnesia, and who suffered crippling neglect because of it. In this category, Nicolas Flagello (1928-1994) is Exhibit A. Flagello was an unadorned late Romantic, whose music surges with extraordinary intensity and dark passion. He is straight in the tradition of Rachmaninoff and, closer to home, Barber. Occasionally, his unsettling, melancholic sound is reminiscent of Bernard Hermann, but with a richer palette.

A new CD from Artek (AR-0036-2) continues the rescue effort led by music critic Walter Simmons, who produced this CD, to record Flagello's music. The Symphonic Aria that begins the disc is an extraordinarily impassioned piece that serves as a perfect introduction to this composer's world. The main work on the CD, the Violin Concerto, was not even orchestrated by Flagello because there was so little prospect of its being performed. How's that for the effects of neglect? Anthony Sbordoni orchestrated it with panache. Violinist Elmar Oliveira plays it with verve and commitment under John McLaughlin Williams, who conducts the National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine. What an irony that this huge, rich, stirring concerto does not receive its premiere from an American orchestra. The CD also contains some gorgeous operatic interludes, arias, and songs.

Simmons scores again with a new Naxos American Classics CD (8.559347), featuring these same forces, with Flagello's early work, Missa Sinfonica, paired with Arnold Rosner's Symphony No. 5, Missa sine Cantoribus super Salve Regina. The Missa is a purely symphonic work inspired by the ordinary of the Mass. Simmons writes that Flagello "considered all his compositions to be fundamentally spiritual in nature." Without its title, I would never guess that it is based on the Mass. However, I do detect in this early work the salutary influences from Flagello's studies in Rome with Ildebrando Pizzetti. I also hear traces of Respighi and Malipiero. Ironically, it is Rosner, a Jew, whose beautiful work sounds more properly liturgical than Flagello's. I am happy to have Flagello's Missa, but I would start with some of Simmons's other Flagello discs, those containing the piano concertos and the First Symphony, also on Naxos.

Next month -- more evidence of the American recovery of classical music in the new discs of beautiful works by Steven Gerber, Kenneth Fuchs, Peter Lieberson, Jon Bauman, Ned Rorem, Joan Tower, Morten Lauridsen, and others for whom I hope there will be room. Do you know who they are? You should, and will.


Robert R. Reilly is the music critic for InsideCatholic.com
Published here with permission of InsideCatholic.com

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Readers have left 2 comments.


(1) Naxos Fan, Soon to be Naxos American Music Fan (Perhaps)
2008-02-29 17:23:59

I have long been a fan of the Naxos label. My first complete set of Beethoven symphonies came from them, and I am continually delighted by both the quality and the price of their offerings.

I am also a fervent proponent of and subscriber to their radio service, which consists of their entire collection, broken down into various themed "channels." It is nearly always on at the house, somewhat to my wife's chagrin. (She cherishes at-least-occasional silence.)

But I have never really branched out into the American Music section of their collection. Inspired by this article, however, I shall try to rectify that shortcoming. Many thanks for the suggestions!

Written by Joseph Susanka

 

(2) Discover Flagello!
2008-02-29 20:34:54

Bob, I'm glad you've taken up the cause of Flagello again -- he's a composer who may be in the late-romantic tradition but he doesn't suffer from ticks often found there. I, too, loved the "Symphonic Aria" and found the "Violin Concerto" to be a major discovery in American music, worthy to be set aside those of Barber, Harris,Korngold, and Rosza (ok, those last two are American by adoption, so what!). Too bad Howard Hanson never wrote a violin concerto....

Written by Deal Hudson



Richard Scheinin
MercuryNews.com, December 2007

"It's all here: Phrygian Gates, American Berserk, China Gates, Hallelujah Junction. The Dutch pianist's performances bring out the beauty in Adams' music. Sturdy and shimmering, these pieces seem to suspend and embrace time. And to tell stories by unleashing the listener's imagination…”




John Terauds
Toronto Star, September 2007

JOHN ADAMS Complete Piano Music (Naxos): The New England-born Adams turned 60 last February, focusing broader attention on his output. Although called a minimalist, there is a more grassroots American sound in much of Adams's work, including jazz and a bit of pop. Dutch pianist Ralph van Raat captures the energy and frequent sensuality of Adams's piano music, while never flinching at the technical demands. The poly-rhythmic power of Phrygian Gates is as powerful now as when the piece was written 30 years ago. Top track: Hallelujah Junction, from 1996, captures the full breadth of the composer's style and magnetism. Includes help of pianist Maarten van Veen.



Christian Carey
Sequenza21.com, August 2007

American composer John Adams (b. 1947) is one of a generation of composers somewhat clumsily labeled postmodernists and/or post-minimalists; but he’s an artist whose work defies easy stylistic categorization. One can particularly appreciate the evolution of his musical language in this survey of Adams’s complete piano music to date on Naxos.

Dutch pianist Ralph van Raat recognizes the extraordinary rhythmic precision and colorful voicing required by this music. In 1977’s China Gates and 1978’s Phrygian Gates, more overtly minimal works that helped to put Adams on the map, van Raat creates shimmering treble ostinati, complemented by booming bass octave passages and fragmented, Stravinskyian modal treble melodies. The “gating” procedure used by Adams, similar to the “phasing” constructs of Reich, creates fascinating rhythmic transitions which outline the broad formal sections of the works.

Adams waited nearly twenty years before writing his next piano composition, a piece for two pianos entitled Hallelujah Junction (1996). Maarten van Veen joins van Raat for this two-piano work. Vivacious and brilliantly hued, with an orchestral-sized palette of timbral affects, Hallelujah Junction demonstrates Adams employing the signatures of minimalism as a basic template, but peppering the texture with more abrupt transitions and ruptured syncopations than his gating pieces demonstrated.

One sees a logical end to this development in the highly boogie-woogie influenced American Berserk (2001), a piece in which, as van Raat points out in his liner note essay, Adams evokes the spirit of Conlon Nancarrow’s Studies for Player Piano. Whereas Nancarrow employed player pianos in order to be able to compose complex canons that, at the time, were problematic for live performers, in American Berserk Adams requires human players to emulate the Herculean feats of mechanized musical instruments: complex metric modulations, polyrhythmic canons, and breakneck tempi. Perhaps one of the benefits of the “postmodern, post-minimal” era is that gifted performers such as van Raat are available to actualize such imaginative, daring, and compelling music.



Allmusic.com, May 2007

Not for the casual Grieg fan for whom the Piano Concerto and the Peer Gynt Suites will do, but rather for the hardest of hardcore Grieg fans for whom only everything and more will do, this disc of the Norwegian master's piano music in orchestral transcriptions with Bjarte Engeset leading Royal Scottish National Orchestra is as good as it gets for what it is. Engeset is a strong yet soulful Grieg conductor who, like every great Grieg conductor, brings out the music's bright colors, its warm lyricism, and above all its deep sentimentality. The RSNO is an agile yet powerful orchestra, which, like every great orchestra of international caliber, performs with effortless ensemble and endless virtuosity. And although to the casual Grieg fan the idea of spending time listening to Johan Halvorsen's arrangements of the Funeral March in Memory of Rikard Nordraak and The Bridal Procession Passes By might not appeal, the hardest of the hardcore will leap at the opportunity to hear those works along with the more familiar orchestration of the Norwegian Dances by Hans Sitt, the hardly familiar orchestration of Ringing Bells by Grieg and Anton Seidl, the world-premiere recordings of Oistein Sommerfeldt's orchestrations of three of the Slatter, and modernist Norwegian composer Geirr Tveitt's orchestration of the composer's longest single-movement piano piece, the Ballade. Typically for RSNO recordings, Naxos' digital sound from Henry Wood Hall in Glasgow is rich, deep, and honest.



Scott Morrison
Amazon.com, May 2007

During my adolescence in the relatively non-ironic 1950s the music of Grieg was frequently featured in both piano recitals and orchestral concerts. With rare exceptions, that popularity has faded and one reason for that, I suggest, is that Grieg's healthy, non-neurotic, humanistic music is less appealing in these jaded and skeptical times. Grieg was one of the great early nationalists and his music teems with the simple peasant qualities of exceptionally tuneful Norwegian folk melodies. That is a central quality of the music recorded here.

What makes this CD a bit unusual is that it features orchestrations of Grieg's piano music, only one of which was actually carried out by Grieg himself. The rest were made by other Norwegian composers with the exception of the orchestration of the Norwegian Dances, Op. 25, by Hans Sitt, a German. Grieg did revise an earlier orchestration of the brief 'Ringing Bells' from his Lyric Pieces done by conductor Anton Seidl. Easily the most impressive of the lot is the orchestration of the twenty-minute piano 'Ballade in G minor, Op. 24' made by the great Norwegian composer Geir Tveitt. This alone, for me, justifies the purchase of this budget issue. Tveitt was in the generation after Grieg and as a nationalist was Grieg's heir. He expands Grieg's orchestration style by including such things as celesta and harp and making striking uses of string harmonics and ponticello effects. The Ballade, written during a time of great stress in Grieg's life -- death of both parents, struggles with religious doubt, concerns that he and his wife could not have children -- is perhaps the most autobiographical of all his instrumental pieces although it has also been interpreted by some as a paean to the Norwegian homeland.

Music lovers who have never heard these orchestrations will come upon familiar piano works in a new guise. Particularly charming is the orchestration of the second of the Norwegian Dances -- Allegretto tranquillo e grazioso -- with the plangent transfer of its nonchalant melody to the oboe (and later other winds) and with pizzicato lower strings imitating the oompah of the piano bass-line.

The booklet notes, written by the CD's conductor Bjarte Engeset, are a model of their kind. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra play as to the manner born. Recorded sound is transparent and lifelike.

Recommended.



Bernard Holland
The New York Times, April 2007

JOHN ADAMS does not write a lot of piano music, but “Phrygian Gates,” “China Gates,” “Hallelujah Junction” and “American Berserk” offer looks at his trajectory as a composer since the two “Gates” pieces from 1977. Ralph van Raat plays all four items for Naxos, with Maarten van Veen as the second pianist in “Hallelujah Junction.”

Mr. Adams can’t be called an orphan of Minimalism because he keeps going home to it. The early “Phrygian Gates” is a monster, at almost 25 minutes. It adheres to familiar patterns of gathering repeated notes and slow, measured trills, and it moves by way of creeping intrusions that propel one meter into a new one. The tones vary from pastels to Romantic piano sound to a racing, thundering finale. “China Gates,” a companion piece, is more elegant geometry: quieter, more contained and a fourth as long.

“Hallelujah Junction” is from 1996, but its repetitions share much with the “Gates” pieces. Two pianos at full tilt reproduce multiple church bells very nicely. Indeed, this music rings both literally and figuratively. It also wears its American-ness on its sleeve, or at least the American myth of clean industrial-strength energy and untroubled confidence.

“American Berserk,” from 2001, sits on a foundation of stride and boogie piano. Its heavy hand and sharp elbows make brutality into a compositional tool. There are whiffs of nostalgia for the 1930s and for Gershwin in particular. Listen for “I Got Rhythm” in a cameo appearance; those bruising upward chord progressions sound an awful lot like Gershwin’s Concerto in F. Mr. Adams, once described as a Minimalist bored by Minimalism, might not mind Mr. van Raat’s repeated notes, which are not always steady and immaculate. He would surely like Mr. van Raat’s hard work and enthusiasm in music that is sometimes very complicated indeed.



James Manheim
Allmusic.com, April 2007

John Adams is a crowd-pleasing composer and as such depends on the large audiences of orchestral music for the musical dialogues in which he engages. Solo piano music didn't have the same kind of public when it came out, at least in the classical realm, and Adams has not written a great deal of music for the piano. The four works presented here by Dutch pianist Ralph van Raat are advertised as Adams' complete piano music, and only one, "Phrygian Gates," is among his most popular works. The album makes a real contribution, for it demonstrates how Adams nevertheless worked on major compositional questions in his piano music; it is not a "byway" of his musical path. The works on the album date from between 1977 ("Phrygian Gates" and "China Gates") and 2001 ("American Berserk"). They all in one way or another attest to Adams' success in incorporating a range of Romantic gestures into a minimalist language, a potent combination indeed that is fully accessible to anybody yet never lapses into sentimentality. He translates the combination into pianistic terms, with sweeping passages of repeated figures that ebb and flow as they offer the pianist something to work at. The four works are entirely different in personality, and "American Berserk" is an especially vivid manifestation of Adams' use of vernacular musical languages -- it abstracts the rhythms and textures of boogie woogie in a satisfying, colorful ride. Van Raat's approach emphasizes the neo-Romantic elements in Adams' music and provides a distinctively Continental interpretation that seems to suggest a continuing rise in and geographical diffusion of Adams' reputation.



Martin Anderson
International Piano, April 2007

For those who like a bit of variety in music, a taste for Adams can take some acquiring - although his insistence upon unabashed tonality, even modality, and gradually evolving rhythmic change has also to be seen as a brave reaction against the prevailing modernist hegemony of the 1970s, when he first adopted Minimalism.

China Gates, written in 1977, and Phrygian Gates, from 1977-78, were some of the earliest essays in his new, gamelan-like language. These 'gates' refer to electronic switches, and Adams' use of changes ­ usually incremental but sometime quite striking - in rhythm, key, colour, dynamic and other parameters reminds me of the fondness of Ockeghem for sparking novelty in his textures by suddenly stripping out a voice or unexpectedly throwing another one into the mix. At just over five minutes, China Gates can be seen as something of a prentice piece before the technique, thus tested, was extended to generate the 25 minutes of Phrygian Gates, where his concern is the gradual replacement of one mode (Lydian) by another (Phrygian).

By the time of the two later pieces on this CD, Hallelujah Junction of 1996 for two pianos and American Berserk of 2001, Adams' language had grown considerably richer. American Berserk is a gloriously dislocated toccata - Ralph van Raat's booklet text compares it to 'the fractured boogie-woogie style of Conlon Nancarrow'. And Hallelujah Junction is charged with an exultant energy, the expansion of the three-note figure ('-lle-lu-jah') of the outset to four unleashing a triumphally assertive surge, tumbling onwards like a tidal bore. As effective as it is here, it must work tremendously well when heard live.

The performances by Ralph van Raat, joined in Hallelujah Junction by Maarten van Veen, are a triumph of deceptiveness: that is, playing these pieces must require the utmost concentration as you count the bars past, avoid those little modifications to rhythm that a pianist will instinctively deploy to bring a performance alive, but van Raat obtains a near-hypnotic control in the two early pieces, almost mechanical in its reliability, and he bubbles with life in the later two. The recording engineer, Michael Ponder, has given him a rounded piano tone in the warm acoustic in Potton Hall, Suffolk.



John L.
Amazon.com, April 2007

Wonderful music this is! The Slatter were originally folk dances and tunes that were transcribed by Grieg for piano. The versions heard here were later orchestrated by Oystein Sommerfeldt. This a world premiere recording of this transcription, very nicely played by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by Bjarte Engeset. The familiar Norwegian Dances were vividly orchestrated by Hans Sitt. They come off wonderfully here, as do the Bridal Procession and Funeral March for R. Nordraak. But without a doubt, the highlight of this disc is the orchestral transcription of Grieg's Ballade, Op.24. This is a heartfelt emotional work, magnificently orchestrated by Geirr Tveitt: also a world premiere recording. The CD nicely concludes with Bell Ringing, from Grieg's Op.54 Lyric Pieces. This release was awarded Disc of the Month on Classics Today in March 2007. Their review, a "10/10" (their highest) concludes with these words: "...everyone loves this music (or should), and the combination of spontaneous, winning interpretations, terrific playing, great sound, and the rarity of some of the arrangements makes this offering completely irresistible." Another winner from Naxos, at a great price.



Peter Dickinson
Gramophone, April 2007

China Gates and Phrygian Gates from 1977-78 show Adams defining his own style as opposed to the classical minimalists such as Riley, Reich and Glass. China Gates is under six minutes and consistently delicate, while Phrygian Gates is a blockbuster of nearly 25. In Phrygian Gates the repetition is constant but there are also abrupt dislocations which function like film cuts- or the electronic gate which is meant by these titles. Nothing to do with the Great Wall or Nixon in China! The technique is the same in the larger concert works as well as the operas that have made Adams famous. There seems to be no obvious reason why one texture ends and another begins, but that's the point of discontinuity - and it goes back to Satie and Stravinsky.

American Berserk (2000) is the most recent piece and both words in the title are justified. From an early age Adams was surrounded by popular music and jazz on equal terms with classical composers. That background figures here with the crazier improvisational Ives and - very obviously - the swinging mechanical complexities of Conlon Nancarrow's studies for player piano. As in Grand Pianola Music, it's extravagantly entertaining.

In the exhilarating two-piano Hallelujah Junction (1996) Nancarrow again stands as godfather and you can hear the rhythmic hallelujahs as it belts on to its hilarious climax. The Dutch pianists, cleanly recorded in Potton Hall, Suffolk, deliver everything with consistent aplomb. There are other acceptable recordings of individual pieces, such as Phrygian Gates included in an anthology by John McCabe (9/00), but Naxos wins yet again by offering all these pieces on one CD.



Philip Clark
Classic FM, April 2007

This is the third CD of Adams's piano music to appear in recent years and Dutch pianist Ralph van Raat fares well against competition from Nicolas Hodges on Nonesuch and Andrew Russo on Black Box. Phrygian Gates and China Gates (1977-78) document Adams at a formative stage, experimenting with embedding his Romantic impulses into the cerebral world of Minimalist process music. Van Raat shapes the onward trajectory forcefully, while deploying a fat, meaty piano tone that's entirely appropriate. The two-piano Hallelujah Junction (1996) is a joyous affair, while American Berserk (2001) telescopes boogie-woogie and jazz riffs into unusual perspectives.



Baker & Taylor CD Hotlist, April 2007

No composer has combined the elements of mid-20th-century minimalism, 19th-century romanticism, and American vernacular music as successfully as John Adams. This excellent disc brings together his four works for piano: Phrygian Gates, American Berserk, China Gates, and Hallelujah Junction, all played with energetic authority by the young Ralph van Raat. American Berserk, the most recent work, is particularly exciting -- a strange blend of Conlon Nancarrow and Franz Liszt.



Marc Geelhoed
Time Out Chicago, April 2007

Such are the vagaries of the music world’s scheduling practices that the stunning Dutch new-music pianist Ralph van Raat studied with Ursula Oppens at Northwestern, yet hasn’t showed up to play in the town of his alma mater lately. On the strength of this disc, he should be here as often as possible. With Chicago’s two opera companies presenting operas by John Adams next year, surely someone around here can take the obvious step of inviting van Raat to play Adams’s piano music, right?

The piano music concentrates Adams’s ideas into manageable portions that don’t get swallowed up as they do in his operas or orchestral works. Phrygian Gates, a 25-minute virtuoso vehicle that’s an extreme test of stamina, shows this, but so too does the five-minute China Gates. Van Raat turns the chordal sequence in Phrygian Gates into an aching moment of repose, anchored with tolling rumbles in the bass, and his China Gates is full of lightly pedaled, pristine beauty. The staggering sweep and longrange journey he takes the listener on in Phrygian Gates can only be accomplished by someone who knows this music every which way.

Maarten van Veen plays the second piano part of Hallelujah Junction, an exuberant work that’s the antithesis of Adams’s solo piano piece American Berserk. Forget preferring Americans playing American music; let this Dutchman take it.



David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2007

Born in the United States in 1947, we find John Adams playing clarinet in his father's marching band as the earliest days in a musical career that took him to Harvard to study composition with Kirshner, Kim and Sessions. In 1972 he began teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory where he initially showed great interest in electronic music. He later fell under the influence of Steve Reich, and together with Philip Glass formed the three most important figures in the development of Minimalism. In the 1980's he began to distance himself from the pure form of that technique, his music mixing traditional tonality with the repeated fundamentals of Minimalism. The Phrygian and China Gates come from that earlier hardcore phase, though even within these repetitive phrases, Adams adds a most interesting shift of harmonies. Rhythmically both challenge the technique of the performer, though it is the task of retaining the shape of the music that can so easily sound mechanical. Almost twenty years later comes Hallelujah Junction by which time he had composed his two major operas, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, both of which had moved his thoughts towards lyricism. Though seemingly an emotive title, the piece in fact takes its name from a truck stop near to this home. It pictures the energy of the place and its surrounding highway, the piece written for two pianos with complex interplay and needing tremendous dexterity. The most recent work, American Berserk, takes Adams back to his early interest in jazz and pop. In total it is an easy disc to listen to, but fiendish to play, the young Dutch pianist, Ralph van Raat, more than able to cope with the problems. Already the winner of a number of major competitions, his Borletti-Buitoni Fellowship has sponsored the present disc. He is joined in Hallelujah Junction by the well-established Dutch pianist, Maarten van Veen, their mutual understanding being exceptional. Impeccable recording, the whole adding up to the most exciting Adams piano disc I have heard.



Peter Grahame Woolf
Musical Pointers, February 2007

I had been hoping to hear Ralph van Raat again ever since his memorable 2000 recital in Amsterdam.

This first CD for Naxos vindicates my expectations, and also confirms my interest in John Adams as a composer for piano ever since my trying to study his Phrygian Gates, which receives here a tremendous performance of sustained virtuosity (even managing to follow the score demands concentration!).

Described aptly in van Raat's liner notes as "a minimalist bored with minimalism", John Adams' development is traced in this CD from 1977 to 2001.

Adams introduced an emotional factor into the gradually changing tonal patterns of Phrygian Gates (that mode alternating with the Lydian), and later went on to display great variety in the two-piano Hallelujah Junction (1996), which develops from minimalist patterning via a "romantic-impressionistic passage" to music which becomes "completely jazzed up and sliced up to atonality" as it approaches its invigorating conclusion. I should have expected Hallelujah Junction to have become a staple of the duo-piano repertoire by now. American Berserk (2001) "recalls the fractured boogie-woogie style of Conlon Nancarrow".

It is all thoroughly entertaining and well worth exploring, especially by those (amongst them myself) who took against the earlier manifestations of the minimalist movement after the first excitement of Reich bursting on the scene wore off. A propitious Naxos debut.



Naxos

More on American Classical Music

Last month, I began talking about modern American classical music. The impetus was the new releases in the stellar Naxos American Classics series, as well as some other new CDs of American music. As I said, I doubt that many readers will have heard of many of the composers. I spent most of the column on the reasons why: the consequences of what happened to music in the 20th century when it eviscerated tonality, and turned off audiences. That struggle is over; tonality has triumphed, and with it melody.

The great value of the Naxos series is its demonstration of this fact. Naxos is restoring our musical heritage to us. It may seem a bit odd that a German, Klaus Heymann, the founder of Naxos, is the one doing it, but bless him for it. In the American Classics Naxos catalogue, you will find some of the big names of American music -- Samuel Barber, Paul Creston, Aaron Copland, David Diamond, Roy Harris, Walter Piston, William Schuman -- in impeccable performances. I have covered many of these releases over the years; I only want to remind you that they are there (see www.NAXOS.com). These are the composers who did not cave in to the ideology of amnesia and were able to achieve some prominence despite it.

Three new releases remind me of the fairly recent history of how the recovery of music took place in part. What began emerging from under the rubble of twelve-tone music back in the 1960s was Minimalism. In it, tonality returned with a vengeance but was, at first, more like a patient from a trauma ward gradually recovering consciousness. Minimalism represents a return to reality, but it is the reality of an emergency room attempting to stabilize the patient after a terrible beating. First, maintain and monitor the pulse; keep the breathing steady. Regularity and repetition are the keys to recovery. And that is what we hear -- the steady, monotonous pulsing of the heart. Minimalism is music slowly, ever so slowly, coming out of a state of shock, as it patiently puts the elements of music back together. There is a certain zombie-like quality to it.

Ars Nova, distributed by Naxos, gives us a mesmerizing performance of Terry Riley's In C, considered by some to be the Magna Carta of Minimalism. It is a somewhat in-your-face assertion of a single pitch, in C, against the pitchless music of the avant garde. This work from 1964, here performed by Ars Nova Copenhagen and the Percurama Percussion Ensemble, under Paul Hillier, deploys 53 melodic patterns that can be played or sung in sequence by any number of singers or instruments. Hillier uses a vocal group and a percussion ensemble consisting of eight marimba players and a vibraphonist (who also doubles on Bali gong). A pattern can be repeated any number of times before proceeding to the next one -- in other words, forever. You may be hypnotized or bored, depending on your tolerance for trances. In any case, it is essential listening for those who wish to understand how music made it back from the grave.

The two other leading Minimalists, Steve Reich (b. 1936) and Philip Glass (b. 1937), have also received new releases that illustrate Minimalism's therapeutic value, if limited musical interest. Reich's music on the CPO label (CPO 777 337-2) -- Sextet, Eight Lines, and, especially, Piano Phases, with the London Steve Reich Ensemble -- seems to keep getting "stuck" for long periods in order to dramatize the moment when it becomes unstuck. This works depending on how much patience you have. Reich breaks the monotony with syncopated rhythms, a sense of humor, and some fun. His music can be like a get-well balloon in the recovery room. The fun starts in the first movement of the Sextet with a locomotive imitation and continues with what sometimes sounds like a typewriter in the fourth.

Philip Glass shows what happens when you try to make something bigger out of the limited techniques Minimalism employs. I enjoyed some of Glass's early works and found his opera on Akhnaten intriguing. However, his endless use of chugging ostinatos wore me out a long time ago. The new Naxos release (8.559325), featuring The Light and Heroes Symphony, performed by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, under Marin Alsop, does not reconvert me. I find The Light light; pleasant, but nothing more. Glass keeps trying to write big-idea music that never seems to get out of the rehab ward.

The composer who broke out of Minimalism and promised a complete return to health is John Adams (b. 1947). A new Naxos CD (8.559285) brings his complete piano music together, with pianist Ralph van Raat, in beautiful, spirited performances. Even at his most Minimalist, Adams knew how to create lovely, even exhilarating music, as his early Phrygian Gates demonstrates. The much later Hallelujah Junction (1996) shows that he has never quite shaken his Minimalist roots or stopped aiming at the ecstatic. It was in orchestral music and opera, however, that Adams made his reputation. Through it, he became the most popular composer of his generation. I will never forget the impact of his Harmonielehre from the mid-1980s. Here was a huge orchestral work that showed that the recovery period of Minimalism was over, with all the resources of music triumphantly restored.

I have kept waiting for Adams to do it again. I suppose that is why I feel disappointment at his new release on Nonesuch (79857-2), which pretentiously places two works, The Dharma at Big Sur and My Father Knew Charles Ives, on two CDs, though they would easily fit on one. Charles Ives (1874-1954) is surely the single most overrated American composer, and I am not attracted by the conceit that Adams's father knew him. In the first movement of the Ives piece, Adams's evocation of him borders on cliché, as it includes an imitation of two bands passing each other and the cacophony they produce -- a signature experience in Ives's life that led to his embrace of and delight in dissonance. Yes, I know dissonance can be fun but, please, it is time to move on. This not to say that some of Adams’s pastiche in this work is not fun; it is.

The Big Sur piece is a concerto for electric violin and orchestra, the second movement of which is a tribute to Terry Riley. Some of the sonorities are quite beautiful but, to me, the keening kind of sound made by the electric violin can come close to irritating and, worse, near to kitsch when it becomes syrupy, which it occasionally does here. I do not think there is enough spine in this work to keep it from being high-level mood music, although Adams achieves some real grip in the thrilling, almost overwhelming climax. If only the rest of the work deserved it. At O'Hare airport, I ventured into a music shop to kill some time. I was disturbed that classical music was lumped together in a bin labeled "classical and new age." I am sorry to say that is where Adams's new release belongs.

As I never tire of pointing out, there were some composers who never gave in to the prevailing amnesia, and who suffered crippling neglect because of it. In this category, Nicolas Flagello (1928-1994) is Exhibit A. Flagello was an unadorned late Romantic, whose music surges with extraordinary intensity and dark passion. He is straight in the tradition of Rachmaninoff and, closer to home, Barber. Occasionally, his unsettling, melancholic sound is reminiscent of Bernard Hermann, but with a richer palette.

A new CD from Artek (AR-0036-2) continues the rescue effort led by music critic Walter Simmons, who produced this CD, to record Flagello's music. The Symphonic Aria that begins the disc is an extraordinarily impassioned piece that serves as a perfect introduction to this composer's world. The main work on the CD, the Violin Concerto, was not even orchestrated by Flagello because there was so littl






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