Shortly after the middle of this month, Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings, the “house label” of the Berlin Philharmonic, released The John Adams Edition. This is a six-disc collection of both audio and video documents that features those Adams compositions that were performed by this orchestra during its 2016–17 season, during which he served as the first Composer-in-Residence in almost twenty years. Chief Conductor Simon Rattle has, as might be guessed, the strongest presence, leading the performance of Adams’ two-act oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary. Two of Adams’ most compelling short pieces, “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” and “Lollapalooza” are conducted by Alan Gilbert. Gustavo Dudamel visits from Los Angeles to conduct the three-movement suite City Noir, which Adams wrote for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Kirill Petrenko conducts “The Wound-Dresser” with baritone soloist Georg Nigl. Finally, Adams himself conducts two substantial medium-length works, “Harmonielehre” and “Scheherazade.2,” a “dramatic symphony” (a phrase the Adams appropriated from Hector Berlioz) for violin and orchestra. The violinist is Leila Josefowicz, for whom the piece was written.
These discs are packaged as part of a hardcover book, which includes all track listings, the texts for the vocal selections, and the essay “Multifarious Music: The Composer John Adams,” written by Alex Ross. There are also an abundance of pages with abstract designs by Wolfgang Tillmans, some of which are superimposed on the printed text. Tillmans’ preference for darkly shaded colors often makes the text almost unreadable. The discs also include the video “Short Rides with John Adams,” which is a documentary about his Berlin residency. There are also videos of Adams in conversation with horn player Sarah Willis and Peter Sellars, author of the libretto for The Gospel According to the Other Mary.
It is always good to begin with the good news. The high point of this collection is definitely “The Wound-Dresser.” As was recently observed on this site, this 1989 composition may be the best example of how Adams could mine intense musical expressiveness to complement the voice of an American poet (that poet being Walt Whitman). The rich poignancy of Whitman’s lines is given an intensely stirring account, which says something given that the performance was given by a Russian-Austrian conductor leading a German orchestra with an Austrian baritone as soloist. Compared with so many of his other compositions, Adams’ use of instrumental resources in “The Wound-Dresser” is remarkably transparent; and Petrenko knew exactly how to match that transparency to Adams’ evocation of Whitman’s voice.
Equally impressive was Gilbert’s account of the two short pieces. The video recordings made it clear that Gilbert himself was having the best of times conducting these works, and his ebullience clearly spilled over into the ensemble. Adams may have intended these as “light works;” but Gilbert’s meticulous attention to detail made it clear that, for each of these pieces, there was far more than mere surface structure.
Things get far shakier where the rest of the offerings are concerned. Dudamel can certainly be credited as a primary authority on City Noir. However, it seems as if Adams is deriving most of his pleasure from playing with clichés, and there is little that a conductor can do other than bring those clichés to light. More disappointing is Adams’ own work as a conductor. I have experienced performances of “Harmonielehre” by two other conductors (one, sadly, only on recording); and I have to say that both of them had a far firmer sense of the flow of thematic material and what I like to call the “landscape of climaxes.” “Scheherazade.2” has similar problems; but they are compounded by Adams having committed himself to account for more narrative than even the best of musical skills can handle.
Nevertheless, the tribulations of “Scheherazade.2” are as nothing compared to thoroughly inchoate treatment of narrative Sellars’ libretto for The Gospel According to the Other Mary. The text can only be described as a self-indulgent mash-up exercise that tries to interleave Old Testament and New Testament texts with prose and poetry by Dorothy Day, Louise Erdrich, Primo Levi (in English, presumably provided by a translator), Rosario Castellanos (in both Spanish and English), June Jordan, Hildegard von Bingen (in Latin), and Rubén Dario (in Spanish). On the video one can see Rattle working nobly to endow this performance with some compelling expressiveness, but ultimately this is a Sisyphean task.
This brings up the issue of the value of the video version of all of the performances included in the collection. Back in 2009 when Examiner.com decided to run a series of articles on the theme of having concert experiences on a tight budget, I was an enthusiastic advocate of the Digital Concert Hall. This provided the opportunity to enjoy streaming videos of Berlin Philharmonic performances, both live and archived. It was not just a matter of having those videos available at a modest price. The value also came from, as I put it, “camera work that assists the ear in the listening process.”
Sadly, it appears that many (if not all) of the skilled video people who made the early generations of Digital Concert Hall videos so engaging are no longer on those jobs. There is frustrating inconsistency when the camera never seems to be looking at what the listener tends to be hearing. Sadly, Adams is the sort of composer who suffers more than others in this regard, since so much of his music involves intricately elaborate textures of instrumental activity across the entire ensemble.
We are thus left with a release whose packaging suggests a “luxury object” that does Adams far fewer favors than he deserves.