Harmonielehre — John Adams (CBSO/Rattle/EMI)

by admin on June 5, 2009 · 8 comments

in Classical Recordings

by Anthony Kershaw

Harmonielehre was composed in 1985 . The composition’s title, German for ’study of harmony’, is also the title of a famous harmony treatise by Arnold Schoenberg. This performance, from 1992, is played by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. The recording is on EMI and runs 62 minutes.

During the summer of 2007, I was sitting at my desk listening fitfully to a BBC live relay from the Proms. It was the house symphony orchestra from the world’s greatest music festival playing some minimalist music. I’ve never been a fan of the style. The odd Glass film score and some Steve Reich, maybe, and that’s my lot. Too repetitious. Too boring. But this piece was different. As it played, I heard gorgeous melodies, profound harmonies and incredibly energetic rhythms. This was John Adams. The great John Adams, San Francisco’s favourite classical music son. The piece? Harmonielehre.

Not only did I fall in love with the piece instantly. I became obsessed. A man possessed.  I couldn’t get the colours out of my head, the arching melodic invention, the block harmonies and the almost Brucknerian orchestration. It filled my musical life for a good month that summer. I researched Adams (great website BTW), his recordings, his music. He’s written a ton of it, and it seems he’s been recorded by the very best. A classical star composer in the 21st Century. Nice!

Almost three years later, I have grown more in love with Harmonielehre, if that’s possible. The blush of instant love is strong, but the music is so deep, so evolved, it drags you along with it. I discover more every time I listen to it. And the great thing is that I’ve discovered so much more great Adams music. Check out his opera Doctor Atomic (lots of excerpts on YouTube) and the magical choral masterpiece, Harmonium (with texts by Emily Dickinson).

I feel the definitive performance of Harmonielehre has yet to be recorded (an arrogant fantasy of mine), although Adams’ performance with the aforementioned BBC SO (Adams is a very fine conductor) was excellent. Edo de Waart’s Nonesuch recording with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra is strong, too. Well played with some subtle rhythmic patterns that elude Rattle. Also, the splendid David Robertson has just released a performance with his St. Louis band on iTunes that, from the buzz on Twitter, is supposed to be amazing. Of course, in Canada, our ridiculous CRTC laws stop us from using the US iTunes and Amazon, the only places the download can be purchased! Argh!!!

That said, Sir Simon Rattle and his Birmingham forces have the measure of the work, and the wonderful ‘fillers’, The Chairman Dances,  Short Ride in a Fast Machine and Tromba Lontana. They are all superb but in the shadow of the seminal Harmonielehre. Rattle prefers fast tempos and beauty of sound, both of which the CBSO delivers with ease. In fact, the orchestra sounds fantastic in all three movements.

The unnamed first movement is the musical embodiment of an Adam’s dream. A supertanker takes off from San Francisco Bay like a rocket. The granitic chords at the beginning and the following excitement may not direct the listener to the action, but since we know the inspiration, it works. The more reflective second section of the movement is magnificently played by the orchestra, especially the solo horn, cellos, violins and piccolo. Stunning! The second movement, The Anfortas Wound is based on the legend of the Fisher King and broods and sways (reminding me of Tippett’s 4th Symphony) until we get some pretty cool quotes of Mahler’s trumpet screams from his Tenth Symphony’s Adagio. Meister Eckhardt and Quackie is the colourful third movement and is based on another dream where his daughter Emily (the playfully named Quackie) rides on the shoulders of the 14th Century mystic, Eckhardt as he flies through space. Adams certainly has colourful dreams. This movement is a headlong nine minute rush to a climactic Eb major resolution. Think Bruckner meets West Coast. Bloody amazing! The horns, trumpets and timpanist are very fine, here.

EMI’s recording is closely miked but does not capture the ‘tightness’ of the de Waart Nonesuch recording. The sound blooms and captures the gorgeous sounds of the orchestra, but I think the larger scale of the piece could have used more ‘hall’. As I said, I think the definitive recording is yet to be released. But, in the here and now, Sir Simon and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra will do nicely.

Purchase the CD with confidence from our affiliate, Amazon.com

{ 2 trackbacks }

Toronto Symphony Orchestra - New Creations Festival — Audiophilia
03.03.11 at 11:57 am
Harmonielehre: John Adams — San Francisco SO/Tilson-Thomas/SFS Media — Audiophilia
09.13.12 at 11:57 am

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Andy Fawcett 06.13.09 at 6:12 am

Hey Anthony,
talk about infectious enthusiasm! My local store has a copy of “Dharma at Big Sur” (Nonesuch) with Adams conducting the BBC SO - worth acquiring?
Thanks, Andy

admin 06.13.09 at 6:20 am


Not sure it’s up there with Harmonielehre, but it’ll be worth your time.

Here’s the great coda from Harmonielehre’s last mvt. Never mind the freaky CA love children dancing. Just enjoy the great performance. LOL


Cheers, a

admin 06.13.09 at 10:29 am


I have just received the full score and the St. Louis/Robertson download. I’ll be publishing my thoughts later this summer.

Andy Fawcett 06.14.09 at 3:46 am

Thanks, A. Based on that brief YouTube clip I don’t think ‘Big Sur’ is quite my cup of tea … but I’ll be checking out Harmonielehre.

Anthony 01.05.11 at 12:15 am

Will this work in Canada? The high trumpet line is hard to hear in this recording. Its not the best performance….I like de Waart better…

admin 01.05.11 at 8:22 am

Hi Anthony. Welcome.

I’m not sure. I have a download directly from the SLSO. It’s worth your time to research it, though. The performance is magnificent and my personal favourite.

Cheers, a

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