You may find reading our review of the Simon Rattle CD of Harmonielehre instructive.
The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra is inextricably linked with John Adams’ Harmonielehere. It was composed for the orchestra in 1985 and has been recorded by them twice — an early, very brave, and very well played recording conducted by then music director Edo de Waart and this new recording taken from live shows by present conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas.
This is my third review of this magnificent work for Audiophilia (and a fourth coming up next week from the opening concert of the Toronto Symphony season) and long time readers may know my love for it. The music is fantastical enough that I think readers may even put up with my clunky prose to find the perfect recording. Is this it?
Well, no. Almost. First, the orchestra plays superbly and you will not find a better recording. The CD from SFS Media (the orchestra’s own label) is incredibly dynamic and highlights the gorgeous sound of the orchestra, not always easy in the unique acoustics of Davies Symphony Hall. Much like the orchestra’s deeply embraced Mahler cycle, you will not find better engineering. If that’s the first on the list, especially for audiophiles, this new recording is a clear first choice.
The problems I find with all the performances I know, save the studio recordings of Rattle’s on EMI and de Waart’s on Nonesuch, stem from live shows. There’s usually a ‘patch’ session scheduled, but the piece is so bloody difficult that I feel self consciousness creeps in at times when live. No safety net in this piece when the mics are hot and you do not want to get ‘lost’ in Harmonielehre. In fact, the Toronto Symphony’s live performance last season was much the same. Very good. Very safe. And this piece needs absolute control and frenzy, if that makes sense? As for conducting the damn thing, it usually feels like ‘head down’ see you at the end!’ Even the airchecks I have with Adams conducting!
The original de Waart recording had the hurdle of a brand new work with new language. That they play it so well, is a testament to the orchestra’s expertise. The Rattle/CBSO seems to be the most self confident and is played as well as any. My favourite is the St. Louis SO with David Robertson on SLSO’s own label (available on US iTunes only). He captures the frenzied precision that eludes most but the recording is not as good as the EMI and not in the same league as this new SFSO CD.
As for Tilson-Thomas, I’m not always a fan, but his DGG recording of Le Sacre and Ruggles’ Sun Treader with the BSO when he was just out of short pants portended great things in this type of repertoire. And, many musicians who I respect adore him. Technically, he nails Harmonielehre. And the band is right with him.
He layers the music so well — and the quality of the Hybrid SACD/CD allows even the most dense orchestration a clarity that other CDs miss. Sometimes, the bass section is divided into several sections in a very delicate manner while brass instruments are ringing above. All clear. You’ll hear piccolos shine like no others, the section violins soar and the mallet and bell percussion (no one writes for percussion as well as Adams) are very well defined.
So, certainly a contender for champion, but not my clear first choice. Musically, the St. Louis/Robertson are still No. 1, ‘look and feel’, Rattle, and engineering, this new recording. Any of the three will do you in the here and now. If we could get the excitement of Adams’ own air checks with the BBC SO and Concertgebouw (lots of frenzy, here!), Rattle’s refinement of execution, the sound of MTT, played by a scrupulously prepared Berlin Phil, we may well get the definitive performance. Perchance to dream.
Harmonielehre and Short Ride in a Fast Machine
Playing time 47:11
Harmonielehre recorded live at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, December 8-11, 2010.
Short Ride in a Fast Machine recorded live at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, September 7, 2011.