John Adams: Phrygian Gates; Road Movies; Hallelujah Junction; China Gates

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

LABELS: Black Box
WORKS: Phrygian Gates; Road Movies; Hallelujah Junction; China Gates
PERFORMER: James Ehnes, Andrew Russo
This CD of John Adams’s piano and chamber music covers most of the works featured on the Nonesuch CD reviewed last August. There’s Phrygian Gates and China Gates, the piano pieces John Adams refers to as his Op. 1 and 2, plus two pieces from the mid-1990s: Hallelujah Junction for two pianos and Road Movies for violin and piano. Both show how Adams’s music has changed over 20 years. The later pieces still have that minimalist drive, but they’re more wide-ranging in mood than the early ones. You’d think such repetitive, obsessively patterned music wouldn’t allow much in the way of interpretative freedom, but in fact the two recordings are markedly different.


On the whole the performances on the Black Box CD are more soft-edged and meditative. This works well in a trance-like piece like China Gates, but in the opening movement of Hallelujah Junction the springy dancing textures and more energised bass of the Nonesuch version win out. The most startling difference is in the sleepy pastoral that is the middle movement of Road Movies. Played by James Ehnes and Andrew Russo on Black Box, this emerges as a dark-toned, searching piece; played by Leila Josefovich and John Novacek on Nonesuch it has a playful, sexy edge. Both CDs do the pieces proud in their different ways, and the Black Box is offered at a more enticing price. However the Nonesuch version keeps its benchmark status for its more beautiful piano sound, and an extra track in the shape of the breakneck American Berserk. Ivan Hewett