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John Adams: Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? etc

Yuja Wang (piano); LA Phil/Gustavo Dudamel (DG)

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

John Adams
Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?*; China Gates
Yuja Wang (piano); *Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra/Gustavo Dudamel
DG 483 8289 (Digital Only/Vinyl)   30:58 mins

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Satan has proved an unlikely muse throughout musical history: from Liszt’s Totentanz and ‘demonic’ recitals to accusations that saxophones were the devil’s mouthpiece, composers have often toyed with the beast. John Adams’s 2018 Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? – a nod towards the 18th-century charge that non-secular music was irreligious – melds these ideas, combining devilish solos with toe-tapping melodies. The piece was commissioned and premiered in LA by Gustavo Dudamel, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Yuja Wang in early 2019; this recording is taken from a second performance given later that year.

The solo part – written especially for Wang – fits the pianist as perfectly as her infamous bodycon dresses. Her flawless technique is ideally suited to the frequent high-octane, galloping passages. The work opens with a repeated piano bass motif that is eventually passed to the orchestra – although the work is referred to as a piano concerto, in some ways it is more of a concertante piece; here, as elsewhere, the piano is treated as a extension of the wider ensemble. The blending of traditional performance directions with those such as ‘gritty’, ‘funky’, ‘bot-like’ and ‘swing’ is more than semantics: after a meditative second movement, the final chapter explodes with pseudo-jazz piano and growling bass – with tolling bells for added hellish effect. Packed full of ear-worms (the simple melody and its improvisatory-like variations in the third section are devastatingly catchy), this work lives up to its title.

Adams’s Reichian solo piano piece China Gates (1977) brings stillness after the fiendish excitement. Wang is pleasantly abrasive in this compact work; try Ralph van Raat (Naxos, 2007) for a softer touch.

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Claire Jackson