Adams: Harmonium; Slonimsky’s Earbox; Harmonielehre; Grand Pianola Music; Nixon in China (excerpts)

COMPOSERS: Adams
LABELS: Nonesuch
WORKS: Harmonium; Slonimsky’s Earbox; Harmonielehre; Grand Pianola Music; Nixon in China (excerpts)
PERFORMER: Various soloists, conductors & orchestras
CATALOGUE NO: 7559-79453-2 Reissue
Nonesuch has followed up its comprehensive survey of Steve Reich, released in 1997, with a similarly generous retrospective of the company’s other leading house composer. These ten discs cover all of John Adams’s major works except his most recent pair of orchestral scores, the 1998 Piano Concerto and last year’s hefty Naive and Sentimental Music, which are scheduled to appear on the label in due course. Most of these recordings are thoroughly familiar, but included here for the first time are specially recorded versions of Harmonium and two less substantial orchestral works, Lollapalooza and Slonimsky’s Earbox, occasional pieces from the Nineties.

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So the set provides a definitive guide to a remarkable career, one of the most individual and significant personal developments, I’d argue, of any composer in the last quarter of the 20th century. The real beginning of that stylistic progress is what Adams himself calls the ‘complex minimalism’ of Shaker Loops and Common Tones in Simple Time, though a real curiosity here is Christian Zeal and Activity, which Adams wrote in 1973, when he was 25 and still in sympathy with the Cagean avant-garde. But it was the large-scale orchestral studies of the early Eighties – beginning with the dappled poetry of the Emily Dickinson settings in Harmonium, through the outrageous Grand Pianola Music, in which all the clichés of 19th-century high Romanticism are pushed close to the boundaries of good taste, to the majestic Harmonielehre – that announced Adams as a distinctive voice in contemporary music. They still seem remarkable scores, even if with the Chamber Symphony and the Violin Concerto Adams then shifted his focus, extending his explorations of harmony and tonality in the first, and of melodic invention in the second.

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The two grand operas, Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, are sampled on this set with single discs of extracts, enough to give a convincing flavour of their sharply different characters – the earlier work conceived on the public scale of a 19th-century grand opera, with an almost Verdian range of set pieces, the latter predominantly introspective and elegiac, modelled upon Bach’s passions. His most recent stage work, the cross-over singspiel I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky, consciously evoking the idioms of rock, jazz, rap and the Broadway musical, is included complete, and like so much of Adams’s output celebrates the richness and diversity of American culture; that, fundamentally, is his greatest achievement.