Album Reviews

John Adams – Son Of Chamber Symphony & String Quartet

(Nonesuch) UK release date: 23 May 2011

As you might expect from its title, John Adams’ Son Of Chamber Symphony bears a close likeness to its 1992 father, the Chamber Symphony itself.

The composer speaks in the illuminating booklet note of his attraction to the form of the chamber symphony, made manifest through Schoenberg’s two very different works in the form.

Adams’ primary source of inspiration is the idea of virtuoso soloists performing together, sparking musical ideas from each other, leading to a whole packed with musical incident and energy.

That is largely the case here, with Adams drawing on Schoenberg’s original orchestration for his Op.9 Chamber Symphony of 1909, only adding brass, percussion and a keyboard sampler.

The sampler adds the sharpness of a prepared piano to the lower end, and the rhythmic drive throughout the first movement is incisive, littered with busy syncopations. The influence of Bernstein is more pertinent here.

Sonorities are intriguing in the third movement too, the sense of a busy piece of machinery difficult to resist. The melodic material does suffer as a result of these more mechanical elements, however, feeding off snippets and hooks as more minimalist music tends to do.

The second movement refutes this notion, with a beautiful passage where a long-breathed melody finds its ideal vehicle in high register violin and low cello, both in unison for several minutes. A more driven tutti section gives way to a sense of the somnambulant towards the end.

The String Quartet, dating from 2008, is considerably more substantial in structure and content than Adams’ previous work for the idiom, John’s Book of Alleged Dances. Here the composer exploits the virtuosity and rhythmic drive of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, often asking them to play in unbroken fast music that allows the composer to flex his muscles.

This means when the motoric rhythms abate the listener is drawn to passages such as the bittersweet lyrical exchanges from just under eight minutes in, their legato approach helping to balance what is on initial appearance a lopsided structure. In the time that has elapsed between his two works for string quartet, Adams has found a surety of purpose in his writing for the form, able to exploit the inner voices with greater authority, as well as adding counterpoint of greater meaning.

This is, then, a fine pair of works to complete the next chapter in Adams’ considerable recorded legacy. He continues to broaden his melodic and harmonic language, and in both these works keeps the listener under his spell. The fine performances help also.

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John Adams – Son Of Chamber Symphony & String Quartet