Adams: Century Rolls; Slonimsky’s Earbox; Lollapalooza

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Adams
LABELS: Nonesuch
WORKS: Century Rolls; Slonimsky’s Earbox; Lollapalooza
PERFORMER: Emanuel Ax (piano); Cleveland Orchestra/Christoph von Dohnányi, Hallé Orchestra/Kent Nagano
CATALOGUE NO: 7559-79607-2
John Adams’s latest oratorio, El niño, confirmed him once again as a master of musical theatre; this disc proves him the consummate concert hall king. How rare it is for a composer’s exact intentions to be realised: reading Adams’s notes to the piano concerto Century Rolls, and then listening to this exuberant performance, expectations are more than met. The work was inspired by the sound of player-piano rolls, and the ‘machine age’ which characterised the last century. Adams’s orchestral ‘twittering machine’ of the first movement pulsates, clicks and tricks the ear as Ax threads through his gleaming chains of solo piano. We’re in a world of brash jazz riffs, Nancarrow-inspired high-jinks and dense counterpoint that has long replaced the monomania of minimalism. In fact, as Adams himself says, there’s an ‘aftertaste of sonata form’ in the long development of this essentially old-fashioned concerto first movement. Ax and the Cleveland Orchestra played the work in as many cities as possible following its 1997 premiere, and it shows: this pianist of renowned poetic subtlety not only captures the manic machine-like rhythms, the hysterical edge to the player-piano sound in the finale, but swings into the improvisatory second movement as if to the manner born. This is Adams at his most confident, his music at its most resilient. Add to this the wonderful sheen and solidity of the recorded sound, and you have an irresistible package.

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Lollapalooza was a gift to Rattle, who must have had a riot with it: heir to Bernstein’s zesty Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, it should become a regular concert overture. The more involved and in-jokey Slonimsky’s Earbox pays tribute to the eccentric American lexicographer, and he would have surely approved of its teeming invention and outlandish obsession with scales.