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ADAMS: "The John Adams Edition"

CD Button Nigl; O’Connor, Mumford; Hoare, Bubeck, Cummings, Medley; Berlin Philharmonic, various. Text and translations. BPHR 170141 (4 CDs, 2 Blu-ray), 336 mins. (concerts), 81 mins. (bonus), subtitled

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THIS SPLENDID BOX SET is a product of John Adams’s 2016–17 tenure as composer in residence at the Berlin Philharmonic. It’s a treasure trove for any fan of Adams’s music: five acclaimed conductors—including the composer himself—lead Europe’s finest orchestra in performances of seven major works, from Adams’s 1985 Harmonielehre symphony to his 2015 violin concerto Scheherazade.2. While the pieces have all been released on CD by other orchestras, these live, studio-quality recordings of the Berlin Phil are likely to become the standard interpretations. The discs come handsomely packaged in a container adorned with kaleidoscopic images by German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans (though his purple-tinted portraits of the composer are decidedly unflattering). Also included are two Blu-rays of high-definition concert videos, interviews and a forty-five-minute documentary covering Adams’s Berlin residency. 

The collection lays out a nice retrospective of Adams’s career, tracing his shift away from Minimalism in the late ’80s toward a luscious, neo-Romantic style. It’s typified in the unabashedly lovely opening of Adams’s 1989 Walt Whitman setting, The Wound-Dresser. Conductor Kirill Petrenko summons a hazy, Debussyian texture of ethereal string harmonies blended with glassy synthesizer. Sensuous violin, flute and trumpet solos emerge from this sonority and intertwine with baritone Georg Nigl’s meditative arioso. However, his gentle tone and quivering vibrato seem at odds with Whitman’s graphic text, based on the poet’s experiences as a Civil War nurse. There’s a strange cognitive dissonance in hearing Nigl sing so tenderly of amputations and clotted blood, accompanied by nostalgic evocations of Wagner, Mahler and Strauss. Rather than dwell on these gruesome details, Adams foregrounds the poem’s underlying eroticism. Nigl reaches a passionate climax as he addresses Death like a welcome lover, and he conveys a warm intimacy with his delicate phrasing of the final line: “Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.”

A vast stylistic gulf separates The Wound-Dresser from the later vocal work in this collection, Adams’s 2012 opera-oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary. In the twenty years between the two pieces, Adams developed a more turbulent musical language marked by jagged melodies and more dissonance. It suits Peter Sellars’s gritty, modern-day take on the Passion story; his collage-form libretto juxtaposes Gospel verses with parallel excerpts from the writings of American activist Dorothy Day, cofounder of the radical Catholic Worker Movement. By drawing on Day’s first-hand accounts of prisons, slums and homeless shelters, Sellars recontextualizes Christ and his disciples as proto-activists and -feminists. The Gospel is told from the female perspective of the “other Mary” mentioned in Matthew, who becomes a conglomerate of Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany and the other women surrounding Jesus.

The work was originally composed for Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, whose earlier recording on Deutsche Grammophon (featuring most of the same soloists as this set) revels in the oratorio’s aggressive, Latin American-inspired dance rhythms. By contrast, Simon Rattle and the Berlin Phil offer a characteristically “German” reading of the score, with thick, Brahmsian execution of Adams’s counterpoint and an emphasis on neurotic passages redolent of Schoenberg’s Expressionist phase. There’s a certain violence to this spiky sound-world, notably the stabbing string syncopations that punctuate the opening “Howl Ye” chorus, ferociously performed by the Rundfunkchor Berlin. Jangling cimbalom and gamelan-like Almglocken (a row of tuned cowbells) provide an ominous accompaniment for the narrating trio of countertenors. Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Nathan Medley, with their close, eerie harmonies, fuse together to form an otherworldly “super-voice” as they recite the words of Christ. 

Adams lends his work an earthy quality by casting two mezzos in the roles of Mary and Martha. As the former, Kelley O’Connor sings a pair of gut-wrenching arias mourning the death of Lazarus. For “In my own quietly explosive here,” with text by Caribbean–American poet June Jordan, she builds up intense energy in her moaning low notes, which burst into sudden leaps of nearly two octaves. Tamara Mumford, as Mary’s sister Martha, shows off an equally full-bodied chest voice; she adopts a dry, matter-of-fact delivery in “We know there will be no utopias,” Dorothy Day’s frank description of the realities of poverty. The women are joined by tenor Peter Hoare in the role of Lazarus, whose resurrection is represented dramatically by a spooky crescendo of groaning strings and wailing choir. His jubilant aria “For the grave cannot praise thee” sounds like a cross between Handel and Gershwin: backed by big-band brass, Hoare confidently swings through jazz-inflected coloratura. In the Last Supper scene, one of the piece’s few lyrical moments, the tenor slides yearningly into his pliant upper register, imparting the message of hope in Primo Levi’s variation on the Passover Haggadah readings.  —Joe Cadagin 

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