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John Adams: My Father Knew Charles Ives, etc

Nashville Symphony/Giancarlo Guerrero (Naxos)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

John Adams
My Father Knew Charles Ives; Harmonielehre
Nashville Symphony/Giancarlo Guerrero
Naxos 8.559854   69:03 mins

The title of John Adams’s 2003 symphonic triptych My Father Knew Charles Ives intrigues and misleads. Adams’s dad did not know the celebrated American composer – at least, not literally. Instead, the work refers to shared familial connections with New England, where both Ives and Adams once lived. The first movement, ‘Concord’, evokes the sounds of Adams’s hometown  (rather than the Massachusetts location from which Ives’s Second Piano Sonata takes its name). Here and in ‘The Lake’, Adams plays with pastiche, invoking Ives’s signature off-stage trumpets and layered, cross-purpose melodies. A short clarinet solo provides an autobiographical note to recall the instrument Adams learned as a child, while a solo piano represents his father’s own musicianship. ‘The Mountain’ is more recognisably Adams, discarding disparate polyphony in favour of a more homogenous swirl. Throughout, Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony have a steady handle on this deeply personal homage.

Like My Father Knew Charles Ives, Harmonielehre has a similarly evocative title that recalls Schoenberg’s textbook. But its style and structure owes little to the Second Viennese School; instead, the 1985 work reflects Adams’s early alignment to minimalism and tonality. The first movement – pleasingly entitled with a single em dash – is an epic display of repeated patterns and a pulsing energy that is referred to again in the ethereal third movement (‘Meister Eckhardt and Quackie’ – named after a 13th-century mystic and Adams’s then four-month-old daughter, naturally). These sandwich ‘The Anfortas Wound’, which rumbles on listlessly. Despite this blip, there is much to enjoy among these Adams rarities.

Claire Jackson

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