Rankings may be invidious, but when the world’s most sophisticated orchestra honours a great contemporary composer with a rare residency, documenting the results with love, you had better believe that John Adams is No. 1. The first of the works here, Harmonielehre, and the most recent, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, are both constantly astounding masterpieces. Both benefit from the full palette of the Berlin Philharmonic, from powerful lower brass to exquisite wind solos and sensuous strings; the melodic line halfway through Part 1 of Harmonielehre, a symphony in all but name, conducted here by the composer, can never have been more beautifully phrased or recorded.
Each performance brings its own special character, even when the same sounds are in question. Of the guest conductors, apart from Adams himself, there’s Alan Gilbert, whose fresh rhythmic energy in two shorter showcases surprised me; and three cheers to Kirill Petrenko for bringing The Wound Dresser, setting Walt Whitman’s piercing- simple verses, to Berlin for the first time since its 1989 premiere. The vowel sounds of Austrian baritone Georg Nigl make some of the words sound alien, but violin and oboe solos are incandescent.
Although yet another documentary featuring the creative energies buzzing around Adams is always welcome, the concert films – superbly composed, of course – should not eclipse the purely aural experience. One might have done so had it featured the Gospel staging devised by Peter Sellars, some of his best work. Surprising, then, to find Simon Rattle doing without it in Berlin. Sonically, his interpretation of a singular passion story has even greater refinement than Gustavo Dudamel’s (DG) – try the quiverings after the women’s chorus in Act I, or the spring stirrings in Act II – and this one gains with a different tenor. Here Lazarus’s Passover solo to words by Primo Levi goes even deeper than comparable solos for Pat Nixon or ‘Doctor Atomic’ Oppenheimer; Peter Hoare’s expressive delivery is superlative, and is reason enough to buy the set. There are many others, not least Wolfgang Tillmans’s photography featured in the album’s packaging. Eight pages in my booklet were printed upside down and back to front, but presumably that error can be corrected.