Peter Oundjian / Royal Scottish National Orchestra

John Adams: Harmonielehre; Doctor Atomic Symphony; Short Ride in a Fast Machine

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This recording of music by John Adams, by a Scots orchestra with a Canadian conductor, is illustrative of Adams' growing international success. Harmonielehre (1985) was the work with which Adams definitely broke through minimalist restrictions and served notice that the style's repeating chords and textures could serve as a basis for an outward view of almost anything in the musical world, that he would be absolutely impossible to pin down. With its title borrowed from a treatise by Arnold Schoenberg, the work almost seems to suggest an alternate path music could have followed in the early 20th century, leading not to twelve-tone music but to different ways of containing the crisis in expression. It is rife with references to music of the period, especially Mahler and Wagner, yet it is still recognizably part of the minimalist tradition. The challenge for the conductor of this work, still one of Adams' most substantial, is to keep all of its elements in balance, to give it space, and it is here that Peter Oundjian and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra succeed very well. Oundjian keeps the orchestra's strings moving almost mechanically but never loses sight of what is being played, and the result is the large canvas the work deserves. He is not quite as convincing in the shorter Doctor Atomic Symphony, an adaptation of an Adams opera about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the atomic bomb, and in the now-familiar Short Ride in a Fast Machine. In these works, some of the fun is lost. For the impressively controlled Harmonielehre, and for the fine engineering work by Chandos in Glasgow's Royal Concert Hall, however, this is well worth the price of admission.

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