tue 23/07/2024

Classical CDs Weekly: Adams, Beethoven, Berg, Debussy, Szymanowski | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Adams, Beethoven, Berg, Debussy, Szymanowski

Classical CDs Weekly: Adams, Beethoven, Berg, Debussy, Szymanowski

A contemporary classic, two famous violin concertos and a stunning piano recital

A minimalist symphony? John Adams's Harmonielehre receives a definitive recordingDeborah O'Grady

John Adams: Harmonielehre, Short Ride in a Fast Machine San Francisco Symphony/Michael Tilson Thomas (SFS Media)

John Adams’s expansive, hyperactive three-movement work emerges more powerfully than ever before in this live recording from San Francisco. The bass lines in this Harmonielehre have staggering presence – listen too loudly through headphones and your brain begins to liquify. Those low notes are all-important, occasionally giving us a fleeting sense of harmonic stability in music which really soars. Adams’s control of tempo is remarkable; at times it’s virtually impossible to ascertain exactly how fast the music is moving as swathes of material overlap and coexist. The work was inspired by a dream involving an airborne oil tanker, and the music’s elephantine grace matches this image perfectly. This performance makes the work convince as a minimalist symphony pitched on a grand scale, one whose unabashed tonality clashes cheekily with the Schoenberg-referencing title.

You can hear references to Wagner, Mahler and Sibelius, but the propulsiveness, the wild energy are uniquely American. And Tilson Thomas and his players know how to make the work hang together. It’s a rip-roaring ride. Shame that the disc is so brief – Short Ride in a Fast Machine is as punchy and exciting as ever, but several other of Adams’s shorter works could have fitted on to the disc. The applause has not been edited out – in this case a good thing. You’ll cheer along with the San Francisco audience.

Berg and Beethoven: Violin Concertos Isabelle Faust, Orchestra Mozart/Claudio Abbado (Harmonia Mundi)

Berg’s Violin Concerto is probably the only dodecaphonic orchestral work which has found anything approaching popularity. Which is as much due to the its back story as it is to Berg’s remarkable music. It was commissioned by the American violinist Louis Krasner who didn’t believe that 12-note music could convey genuine feeling and emotion. The death in 1935 of the 18-year-old daughter of Berg’s friend Walter Gropius prompted him to compose the concerto in little over three months. Berg’s own premature demise followed in December. It’s a near-perfect last work – lyrical, nostalgic, and melodic. Folk dances and a Bach chorale are famously quoted; Berg seamlessly melding their contours to the row of notes which provides the concerto’s material. And Isabelle Faust’s performance is special. There’s something warm and consolatory in her playing. She doesn’t overdo the sentimentality, and there’s as much rapture as regret. None of which would be possible without Abbado’s perfectly judged orchestral support; the violent outbursts in the second movement are rightly brutal and the work’s closing minutes are exquisite.

The Beethoven Concerto makes a surprising coupling, dragging us from crepuscular shadow into warm sunlight.  As a performance it’s not as striking as Faust’s Berg, but there are lovely things here, notably a sweet Larghetto and a Rondo allegro which really smiles. Buy this disc for the Berg – possibly the work’s finest recording yet.

Debussy: Pour le piano, Estampes, L’Isle joyeuse; Szymanowski: Prelude and Fugue in C sharp minor, Sonata in C minor Rafal Blechacz (DG)

Anyone who’s ever dismissed Debussy’s piano music as a sequence of fluffy fin-de-siècle noodlings needs to listen to Rafal Blechacz’s assault on the Prélude to Pour le piano. It’s so startling, so physically exciting that you end up playing it again as soon as it’s finished, unable to believe what you’ve heard. The virtuosity soon stops registering – you’re listening to Debussy speaking, not just a flashy technique. Blechacz can relax as well – Pagodes and La Soirée dans Grenade from Estampes are as coolly beautiful as they’ve ever been, and the fireworks return for a tempestuous Jardins sous la pluie. It’s quite brilliant, and I’ve never been made so aware of Debussy’s elusive sense of humour, with each insouciant key change deftly pointed.

I’d happily pay full price for 30 minutes of playing which is this good. But we also get music by Blechacz’s compatriot Szymanowski. The Prelude and Fugue in C minor’s two movements encompass late-romantic steaminess and Bachian austerity, as does the early Sonata in C minor, a work which oozes sweaty physicality. Blechacz makes this overheated delight sound like the greatest piano piece you’ve never heard. It culminates in the most grandiose of fugues. The recorded sound is awesome. The musicianship is beyond reproach.

Watch Rafal Blechacz discuss and play Debussy and Szymanowski:

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