On record: Nashville Symphony / Giancarlo Guerrero – John Adams: My Father Knew Charles Ives, Harmonielehre (Naxos)

Nashville Symphony / Giancarlo Guerrero

John Adams
My Father Knew Charles Ives (2003)
Harmonielehre (1985)

Naxos American Classics 8.559854 [69’03”]
Producer Tim Handley
Engineer Trevor Wilkinson

Recorded 5-7 October 2018 (Harmonielehre), 25-27 October 2019 (My Father Knew Charles Ives), Laura Turner Concert Hall, Nashville

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Naxos adds to its coverage of John Adams with this release featuring two major orchestral works – the one among the most enticing of his latter-day output, the other among the most characteristic (and recorded) of the pieces that first accorded him international prominence.

What’s the music like?

Adams has long expressed a penchant for the music of America’s great visionary of the late-Romantic era, and My Father Knew Charles Ives is his oblique while affectionate homage to the composer who gave American classical music its aesthetic basis. Not that the title should be taken literally – rather, the work’s three movements add up to an inclusive portrait of Ives in a way not dissimilar to that of the composer’s orchestral sets. Thus, the opening Concord deftly identifies the cultural environment behind Ives’s thinking besides alluding to some of his most inimitable music, while The Lake builds upon this with evocative and atmospheric writing whose concertante role for piano also finds resonance in the senior composer’s music. The final and longest movement, The Mountain returns to those transcendental strivings as infused Ives’s creative maturity, though its finely sustained initial pages are not followed up by the falling back on well-rehearsed minimalist routines that ensue. Conversely, the closing pages inhabit an ethereal introspection as makes for an understated and affecting apotheosis.

Hard to believe it is now 36 years since Harmonielehre first blazed a trail over the Western musical landscape, or that what once provoked extreme reactions (causing a near riot at the 1987 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival) should have come to represent a musical lingua franca imitated many times in the interim. That this earliest of Adams’s ‘symphonic’ works remains among his most representative is fully reaffirmed here. Giancarlo Guerrero finds a viable balance between drama and lyricism in the lengthy opening movement, then builds the mingled Wagnerian and Mahlerian resonances of The Amfortas Wound toward a climax of potent anguish (if such is the music’s intent). The luminous opening of Meister Eckhardt and Quackie demonstrates the best in the Nashville Symphony – as with its superb release of Christopher Rouse (Naxos 8.559852) – and while even astute pacing cannot make the closing peroration sound other than manufactured, the approach yields a methodical and eventful sense of purpose as makes its ‘travelling in hope’ more compelling than any arrival.

Does it all work?

It does, from the perspective that Adams often makes his larger-scale works cohere through sheer force of impact more than formal ingenuity – his trademark post-minimalism proving renewable at almost every turn. Guerrero’s take on My Father Knew Charles Ives is certainly preferable to the composer’s rather calculated account with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Nonesuch), while his Harmonielehre can rank high among the seven available recordings of this piece – among which, Kent Nagano with the Montréal Symphony Orchestra (Decca) currently leads the field.

Is it recommended?

Yes, not least when recording and annotations are first rate. Hopefully, future Naxos releases of Adams will explore further his extensive back catalogue and revive such as the impressive ‘symphony’ El Dorado, which still awaits its second recording after virtually three decades.

For further information on this release, and to purchase, visit the Naxos website. For more on John Adams, the composer’s website is a great resource. Meanwhile the Nashville Symphony website is here, and you can visit conductor Giancarlo Guerrero’s website here

On record – Manuel Barrueco, José Staneck, São Paulo Symphony Orchestra / Giancarlo Guerrero – Villa-Lobos: Guitar & Harmonica Concertos (Naxos)

Manuel Barrueco (guitar), José Staneck (harmonica), São Paulo Symphony Orchestra / Giancarlo Guerrero

Heitor Villa-Lobos
Concerto for Guitar and Small Orchestra (1951)
Sexteto Místico (1917-55)
Concerto for Harmonica and Orchestra (1955)
Quinteto Instrumental (1957)

Sexteto Místico: Cláudia Nascimento (flute), Layla Köhler (oboe), Douglas Braga (alto saxophone), Fábio Zanon (guitar), Rogério Zaghi (celesta), Suélem Sampaio (harp)
Quinteto Instrumental: Cláudia Nascimento (flute), Adrian Petrutiu (violin), Ederson Fernandes (viola), Adriana Holtz (cello), Suélem Sampaio (harp)

Naxos 8.574018 [60’04”]

Producer and Engineer Ulrich Schneider

Recorded 30-31 July (Guitar Concerto), 2-4 August 2017 (Harmonica Concerto), 29 April 2018 (Sexteto & Quintet), 2017 Sala São Paulo, Brazil

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Naxos make a significant addition to their series The Music of Brazil with works from the country’s favourite classical music son, Heitor Villa-Lobos. Villa-Lobos’ instrument was the guitar, and it takes centre stage for the much-loved Concerto, complemented by its cousin for harmonica and orchestra. Two chamber-sized pieces for six and five instrumentalists respectively complete an attractive line-up.

What’s the music like?

Warm and sunny – a perfect counterpart to the gloomy late mornings and early evenings of December!

The Guitar Concerto is especially good, a compact design with the small orchestra complementing the guitar perfectly. The piece has an easy going nature from the beginning but that doesn’t mean it’s insubstantial, as the wistful second theme proves. The slow movement is elegant but also keenly felt, with a thoughtful yet virtuosic cadenza that leads straight into the finale, which is crisp and incisive.

It is still unusual to hear the combination of harmonica and orchestra in a classical context, and the instrument’s piercing tone won’t necessarily appeal to everyone, no matter how good the performance. That said, Villa-Lobos, who wrote the Harmonica Concerto for the skilled American harmonica player John Sebastian, gives the main instrument plenty of good tunes and soulful inflections.

The small-scale works accompanying the concertos are both attractive too. The Sexteto Místico appears to have had a chequered history. Begun in 1917, when composers were exploring alternative sonorities in their chamber music, it was not published until final completion in 1955. It paints attractive colours of pastel shades, the addition of guitar and celesta giving it an exotic air, especially in the unison passages. Meanwhile the bigger Quinteto Instrumental feels more classical in its instrumentation and musical language, again using consonant harmonies that radiate sunshine. With a warm sonic picture the recorded sound is ideal.

Does it all work?

Much of it does. The Guitar Concerto receives an ideal performance that feels wholly authentic with the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra’s accompaniment. Their dialogue with Manuel Barrueco is beautifully observed and lovingly phrased under Giancarlo Guerrero‘s direction, and Barrueco gives an excellent account of a justly popular work.

José Staneck is on brilliant form in the Harmonica Concerto, with impressive virtuosity complemented by lyricism, but even that and a sensitive orchestral accompaniment do not quite win me over on the work. It could just be a case of unfamiliarity with the harmonica in this context though, so don’t let that put you off!

The sextet and quintet are ideal, sunlight streaming in on these affectionate accounts that capture the fluid writing for harp, guitar and celesta round the edges.

Is it recommended?

Yes. It’s great to see Villa-Lobos programmed in this way, and the disc has great warmth and hence enormous appeal. Barrueco’s version of the Guitar Concerto is a great modern complement to those made by John Williams, Julian Bream and Narciso Yepes, and the couplings show off the composer’s versatility and invention.

Listen

Buy

You can listen to clips from this disc and purchase a copy at the Naxos website here