Friday, 25 April 2014

CD Reviews - April 2014

First, music from American composer, John Adams (b.1947).  I saw his opera in 2009 at the ENO, Doctor Atomic, which centres around the physicist J Robert Oppenheimer, and the build up to the first test of the atomic bomb.  An unlikely ‘story’ for an opera perhaps, but then Adams has carved somewhat of a niche for tackling political and controversial topics in his operas (Nixon in China, and The Death of Klinghoffer, for example).  I was absolutely blown away by the intensity and drama of the music, and also the central performance of Gerald Finley as Oppenheimer.  However, transferring the music from this to an orchestral symphony, as Adams did in 2007 to produce his Doctor Atomic Symphony, was a tricky move.  Yet for me, the music still holds the energy, and the second movement in particular (titled ‘Panic’) is truly terrifying.  Adams transcribes the stunning aria ‘Batter my heart, three-person’d God’, which Finley made his own, for solo trumpet here, and it almost works.  Overall, the work stands as a coherent symphony, and it is energetically performed here by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by Peter Oundjian.  They follow this with Adam’s popular concert work, A Short Ride in a Fast Machine.  This is a great orchestral showpiece, and its energy and humour is irresistible.  Here, the driving rhythms do not always feel totally secure, but the drive to the finish is convincing nevertheless.  The rest of the disc is then given over to Harmonielehre – which is a really a three movement symphony.  Composed in 1985, it was perhaps one of the earliest large scale orchestral works to emerge from minimalism.  Again, it contains the same elements of drive, energy and power, achieved from Adams’ relentless use of the clever combination of slow moving harmonies against fast, repetitive rhythms, with hypnotic results. 

Relatively little is known about the life of the English Tudor composer, John Sheppard (c.1515-1558), and a lot of the music that survives is incomplete.  However, the music we do have shows what a skilled writer he was, particularly in combining and drawing on chant with choral textures.  He also made especially imaginative use of the soprano/treble voice, creating beautifully soaring lines which rise wonderfully out of the choral textures from time to time.  The Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge, under Andrew Nethsingha, have recorded two of the more substantial works – the ‘Western Wynde’ Mass, and Gaude, gaude, gaude Maria virgo – and interspersed them with a number of shorter motets and anthems.   The opening Gaude, gaude is perhaps the most successful here, and the six part motet, Spiritus Sanctus procedens is given a convincing reading.  However, there are some problems of blend overall here.  The boy trebles produce a pleasant sound, but are not uniformly secure particularly at the top end of the range.  Equally, there are some quite strong and individual lower voices which stick out of the texture at times.  I suspect there are some budding solo voices here amongst the men, but that’s not necessarily an asset in this repertoire.

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, April 2014)

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