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A razzle-dazzle Rattle-Battle!

Harmonielehre 1994A youngish Simon Rattle recorded this thrilling version of John Adams equally thrilling Harmonielehre in 1993, (and it was released in 1994) well in the middle of his tenure with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and it is a stunning, exhilarating ride.

My EMI classics version comes with disc notes which made my eyes and brain spin, , full of references to how Adams’ piece nods to Schoenberg’s writing on harmony, and tracing the Minimalist movement in the States, but these were not notes which spoke particularly to me.

Harmmonielehre back

I first heard this piece in a concert devoted to ‘minimalists’ and though I’d gone for pieces by two of my favourites, Part and Glass, this was the piece that sang out to me.

What did make sense to me (both in the notes for that concert, and the liner notes here) is that the initial inspiration came from a dream which Adams had had, of a huge tanker rising out from the San Francisco Bay and taking flight.


The terror and the shock and the glory of this is there in the explosive beginning. I remember the first time I heard it, like some sort of rollercoaster punch to the gut, nearly lifting me out of my seat. There is so much beauty in the frequently returned to power of this waking kraken, roaring out of the deep. Perhaps the surprise of the piece though is the delicacy and grace, a musical line also arises and is sweet, flowing, lyrical. The arch of musical line and the brute force of pulse, shimmer, repetition and development, the little threads of change which I find so exciting in minimalism, seem to tussle, tangle and weave with each other. It’s like a dialogue between grace and power, powerful grace, graceful power.

(if you stay with the Youtube, it will automatically spool on to continue playing this piece, cut into the sections Youtube uploads generally seem to arrive in)

The second movement surrenders its opening completely to an expressive, expansive, unwinding, like coming free from gravitational pull. And curiously reminded me of the dreamy languor of Debussy, particularly L’Apres Midi d’un faun. But just when it seemed safe to drift dreamwards, Adams begins to wind everything up, and there’s another kind of dialogue between dynamic tension, forward propulsion and the slow unwinding. I found this marvellous to listen to ‘in my body’, like some kind of sympathetic nervous system/parasympathetic nervous system juxtaposition – heart speeds, heart slows, heart speeds, heart slows.

And then there is the third movement. Oh my. All shimmer, geometric, like light on the surface of water on a lake, with a running breeze creating an extraordinary visual effect. This movement seemed, at times, quite Glasslike, his kind of hypnotic bright shimmers, lulling and rocking the listener, and firing them up, little jolts of change of rhythm and musical line. And finally, power, energy as that tanker pulls out to the stars

A wonderful piece, both playful and sombre, filled with sunlight and crackling with thunder and electrical storm.

John Adams

           John Adams

The additional pieces on this CD are the mischievous ‘The Chairman Dances’, taking some music from Adams opera Nixon In China. It is subtitled ‘A Foxtrot for the Orchestra’ and, yes, the listener rather wants to cavort and twirl! And it is happy/silly, like some of the early Penguin Café Orchestra – particularly, Telephone and Rubber Band, all wrapped up in a centre of dance orchestra stateliness.

The CD is completed by two fanfares, the first, Tromba Lantana is almost melancholic, introspective, and then the final, titled ‘Short Ride In A Fast Machine’ is precisely that, another shot of high energy octane, a big shout of fun and celebration

This marvellous CD – both the execution of the pieces, and the programme itself, is a wonderful celebration/showcase of a composer who is so much more than merely a minimalist party liner.

Rattle having fun with the Berlin Philharmonic

Rattle having fun with the Berlin Philharmonic

The version I have is the 2007 re-release of the original 1994. I’ve included both links to the UK site, it is only the cover which differs (and, for all I know, the liner notes) It is also available as an mp3 download, and the usual ‘snippets available’ for 30 second appraisal.

There seem to be limited copies, and slightly different pricing, on the physical discs. The Stateside site, more sensibly, merges the two rather than confusedly having two listings

Harmonielehre John Adams/Simon Rattle/CBSO 1994 Amazon UK
Harmonielehre John Adams/Simon Rattle/CBSO 2007 Amazon UK
Harmonielehre John Adams/Simon Rattle/CBSO Amazon USA