ADAMS: Short Ride in a Fast Train. The Wound-Dresser. Berceuse élégiaque. Shaker Loops.
Nathan Gunn, baritone; Bournemouth Symphony Orch/Marin Alsop, cond.
NAXOS 8.559031 (B) (DDD) TT: 58:20

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Terrific music, very well done indeed. Shaker Loops introduced me to Adams. I bought what I think must have been the first recording, on LP. Frankly, it didn't lead to a lasting friendship. At the time, the late Seventies, I was heavily into the heirs of Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg, as well as into composers like Varèse, and I sniffed. Adams seemed to me simply Not Playing the Game. Philip Glass and Terry Riley's music only confirmed me in my prejudice, although Steve Reich fascinated me from the get-go. On the other hand, Short Ride in a Fast Machine a few years later proved impossible to resist. I began to make a mental exception for Adams, as I had for Reich, although it took me a while to conclude that perhaps all those composers herded into the Minimalist corral may not have had a lot in common. In any case, very few of them stuck with pure minimalism. Adams had a "hard, gem-like flame" of poetry in him, as opposed to the passionate logic of Reich, a sensibility very close to the Deep Imagists of the Seventies. He became less interested in process for its own sake and moved toward a highly individual language -- an amalgam of Classic Modernism, Minimalism, and even pop. The early operas Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer seemed to show Adams trying on masks - Rossini and Mussorgsky, respectively - and this seemed to carry over into his other work of the time as well. Schoenberg hovered in the background, without Adams giving himself over to The Method. However, his Violin Concerto, for me one of the most expressive since the Sibelius, woke me up to Adams's mastery of something new: a tonal idiom that didn't rehash old stuff or dress up as Mahler (or as anyone else, for that matter). In fact, it cast for me a new light on his career to that point. It brought Adams's authentic voice into clarity.

I see now, for example, that my initial aversion to Shaker Loops stemmed from a disappointment that Adams hadn't rewritten Appalachian Spring. No reason, of course, why he should. I began to hear the piece for itself. It exists in two versions: a piece for solo strings and a revision for string orchestra, a bit like Barber's Adagio for Strings in that regard. Both versions have their advantages. The full string orchestra gives you the excitement of massed strings. The original shows you more clearly how Adams brought off his textures. Like most Minimalist music of the time, the harmony is fairly static. Minimalists were rarely interested in harmony -- that is, traditional functional harmony -- anyway. They concentrated instead on complex rhythmic counterpoint. Insistence on a single tonality, which one could eventually tune out, allowed the listener to concentrate on the interplay of rhythms among various lines. Ironically, it turns out that these composers initiated a new approach to tonality, one that even non-Minimalists could take. One can see what about Minimalism attracted Adams -- its pulsing energy, in marked contrast to the arrhythmic miasma characteristic of much postwar music. Here and there, one notes (with the advantage of hindsight) something that isn't Minimalism: yearning little motives, slower, sometimes only three notes long, functioning as a kind of counterpoint to the pulse. One gets the manic energy of the Shakers -- as they fill themselves with the wine of the Spirit -- and their contemplation. Shaker Loops may not be everyone's cup of hot chocolate, but it has lost nothing of its original poetry.

Short Ride in a Fast Machine
, beautifully described as "four minutes of pure aural adrenalin" kicked off by the rap of a wood block, has become a classic concert-opener. Adams has spoken tellingly about his alienation from the prevailing style of the Seventies - its dourness, more than anything else, which seemed to him to have little to do with the American optimism so strong in the Sixties and even the Seventies, especially in the Bay area of California, to which he had moved. Again, one hears sounds normally associated with Minimalism as well as, again, something more: a kind of gesture toward development, rather than the Minimalist "process." By the time it ends, if you haven't tapped your foot or your finger once, see your doctor. You might be dead.

Berceuse élégiaque brings to mind -- at least its title does -- Debussy's Berceuse héroïque. It's actually Adams's orchestration for chamber group of a Busoni piece, subtitled Des Mannes Wiegenlied am Sarge seiner Mutter (the man's lullaby at the coffin of his mother). It's a very subdued nine or so minutes, and the colors are quietly gorgeous and original as hell. Oddly enough, the similarity to Shaker Loops fascinates me the most. You might not believe two so emotionally antipodal works could share anything. However, in the Berceuse, as in the Loops, small yearning cells cry out against a relentless background. The Busoni lacks the psychological "dissonance" of the Adams, but that Adams felt drawn to it doesn't surprise me.

Constituting the heavy guns on the program, The Wound-Dresser sets a Drum-Taps poem by Whitman as a dramatic scena for baritone and orchestra. Adams generally chooses his texts well, and he also edits Whitman pretty well. One of the difficulties of setting a long poem by Whitman (and he wrote quite a few long ones) is not necessarily the rhythm, but the amount of sheer reportage. Unlike many nineteenth-century poets, he doesn't make up a lot of stuff. Almost all of his great passages abound in details he actually witnessed. He and Dickens are probably the Nineteenth Century's two great pairs of eyes. You can read Emily Dickinson for a glimpse into the austere New England soul. You read Whitman to find out what was happening on the sidewalks. The Wound-Dresser, for example, comes from his experience as a hospital nurse during the Civil War. Men don't gracefully expire. They die over days of agony, with a "stump of the arm," a "through and through" in the neck, "a gnawing and putrid gangrene," a "yellow-blue countenance," a "crush'd head." As he himself wrote, "I am the man ... I was there," and he rarely lets you forget it.

It would be easier to set the poem as recitative. Adams almost, but not quite, yields to the temptation. One can't really call the setting an aria, in the usual sense, although here and there one finds song-like sections. Instead, like Wagner, the orchestra carries the burden of coherence, with the voice essentially offering commentary or at least a parallel track. The Wound-Dresser inhabits some sort of middle way between Barber's Knoxville and Babbitt's Philomel, somewhere near Britten's third canticle. Emotionally, the work is heartbreakingly restrained. A sense of disquiet permeates the work, as the singer tells of the horrors he sees. But there's nothing grotesque. We come away from the work, not in disgust, but profoundly sad.

This is hands down my favorite Marin Alsop disc. I begin to understand her good reviews. Not only is she rhythmically crisp in Short Ride and Shaker Loops, but she generates heat, largely missing from her Bernstein recordings, for instance. Furthermore, she has a refined command over the subtleties of the Berceuse. Think of the difficulties of maintaining interest for ten minutes in a piece that aims at monochromaticism and never raises its voice. Twice as long, The Wound-Dresser compounds those difficulties, and she and Bournemouth sail through them. We don't even think of the difficulty until they stop. Baritone Nathan Gunn gives Sanford Sylvan, as familiar with Adams's music as any other performer, a run for his money. He sings intelligently and affectingly. I'd put Alsop up against anyone else in this repertoire, including Kent Nagano and the composer himself. In fact, I give hers the edge over Adams's own fine recording of The Wound-Dresser (with Sylvan). She gives me more shades, and she affects me more. One of the best of Naxos's American Classics series.


S.G.S. (August 2005)