Adams: Harmonielehre; Short Ride in a Fast Machine

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: John Adams
LABELS: SFS Media
ALBUM TITLE: Adams: Harmonielehre; Short Ride in a Fast Machine
WORKS: Harmonielehre; Short Ride in a Fast Machine
PERFORMER: San Francisco Symphony/Michael Thomas
CATALOGUE NO: SFS0053

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At the time of the Harmonielehre’s premiere in 1985, it already seemed clear that here was as near a great work as makes no difference. Today the immensity and mastery of John Adams’s three-movement symphonic conception just impresses all the more.

Schoenberg’s book Treatise on Harmony supplies the title – and sumptuous surround-sound has this classy San Francisco Symphony line-up sounding like the even huger forces of Schoenberg’s enormous cantata Gurrelieder, whose late-Romanticism Adams consciously evokes. More than in previous recordings, Michael Tilson Thomas’s superbly paced approach conveys the music’s sense of vast surrounding spaces, and the momentum of the biggest passages is the more thrilling for being cannily unrushed. But repeated hearings haven’t convinced me that the loveliness of the finale’s opening is captured as it could be. And the bleakness of the second movement, ‘The Anfortas Wound’, has lost out to the soundfest syndrome elsewhere; here it sounds too gorgeously like the rest of the work, rather than its harrowing dark underside. The earlier recordings of Harmonielehre under Edo de Waart (Nonesuch) and Simon Rattle (EMI) are richly complemented by this one, but not displaced.

The four hectic virtuoso minutes of the Short Ride in a Fast Machine, premiered in 1986 by the Pittsburgh Symphony under the baton of Tilson Thomas, are a welcome bonus.

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Malcolm Hayes