The John Adams Edition: Berlin Philharmonic, Berlin Radio Choir, John Adams, Gustavo Dudamel, Alan Gilbert, Kirill Petrenko, Simon Rattle (conductors), Leila Josefowicz (violin), Georg Nigl (baritone), Peter Hoare (tenor), Kelley O’Connor, Tamara Mumford (mezzo-sopranos), Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, Nathan Medley (countertenors). Berliner Philharmoniker Recordings BPHR 170141, 4 CDs, 2 Blu-ray discs.
By Richard S. Ginell
DIGITAL REVIEW — Until now, the Berlin Philharmonic’s eponymous in-house label has been lavishing its luxury-class resources completely on standard repertoire like symphony cycles by the usual Europeans. But the orchestra’s newest box is a significant break from the pattern — the first set devoted to contemporary music from a living composer, an irreverent American one at that. And the Berliners have done a terrific job.
Every performance on this sumptuously recorded audio/video survey of the Adams catalog is an advance over — or competitive with — every previous recording of the seven works in the box, even though, with the sole exception of the tiny, flamboyant Short Ride in a Fast Machine, the Berlin Philharmonic was playing them for the first time. Adams himself attributes the quality of these performances to the Berlin orchestra’s obsessive determination to “get it right.” To that I might add that by now, Adams’ music has been played around the world often enough so that his language has become part of the international symphonic tool kit.
The project came about during Adams’ time as Berlin’s composer-in-residence in 2016-17, which also happened to coincide with the worldwide celebration of his 70th birthday. The seven works span nearly Adams’ entire time working with big orchestras, starting from the 1980s, when he was grafting maximalist results onto a minimalist base, touching briefly upon the 1990s, and making a big leap into the complex works of the past decade that left minimalism way behind.
Also, the box is as much a survey of conductors as it is of Adams’ music, for not only is outgoing Berlin chief conductor Simon Rattle on the set, so is his successor (Kirill Petrenko), a once-rumored candidate for the job (Gustavo Dudamel), the newly appointed leader of another German orchestra in Hamburg (Alan Gilbert), and the composer.
Adams’ own conducting style is straightforward, strictly on the beat, with few podium histrionics yet plenty energetic. As good as the San Francisco Symphony is in their two recordings of the 1985 Harmonielehre, first with Edo de Waart and more recently with Michael Tilson Thomas, the Berliners under Adams sound smoother, sleeker. In Scheherazade.2 (2014-15), the piece’s muse, violinist Leila Josefowicz, is its eloquent (and to date, only) advocate. As a bonus on the video version, Scheherazade.2 is prefaced by a spoken introduction from Adams during which he gets in a jab at Brexit and allies himself to the idea of #MeToo several months before the movement got going.
Gilbert is entrusted with the shortest pieces in the box, happily bouncing up and down to the beat of Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986) and the jumping Lollapalooza (1995). The Berliners play with handsome flair, a luxurious fast car indeed, though without the razzing irreverence that Tilson Thomas brings to these showpieces.
In the case of City Noir, we have an earlier video as a precedent — Dudamel’s world premiere performance of the piece from his 2009 inaugural concerts as Los Angeles Philharmonic music director. The Venezuelan maestro is a changed man eight years later in Berlin: his mop of hair is shorter, now flecked with gray; his motions are less jerky, less all over the place. He conveys a more assured and mature presence; he doesn’t have to work as hard to get what he wants. The Berlin players don’t quite get the swing of City Noir’s jazzy rhythms as viscerally as the LA Phil does, but they make a mightier, richer sound. Also, look at the difference in how the audiences dress: In Berlin, casual goes as opposed to the tuxedoed LA gala crowd.
The lyrical concert aria The Wound Dresser (1988-89) gives us a rare look at Petrenko, who to date is not well represented on recordings. Attuned to the material at hand, Petrenko comes in with an entirely different podium manner than his colleagues — flowing, low-key, sensitive, occasionally grinning approvingly of his players. Baritone Georg Nigl is in appropriately compassionate form. It’s a lovely performance, if just a small, unrepresentative sample of what to expect when Petrenko assumes the job full-time.
Rattle saves the most difficult, most lengthy challenge for himself — the quasi-operatic oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2011-12), which occupies half of the box’s playing time. The Rattle performance has the energy of Dudamel’s lean, mean world-premiere audio recording (also with the LA Phil), but with more solid weight and heft — and Rattle takes an additional eleven minutes to get through the piece. Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor repeats her world-premiere performance as Mary, as do mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford as Martha and the smooth-as-silk trio of countertenors (Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, Nathan Medley), while tenor Peter Hoare takes on the role of Lazarus, recorded by Russell Thomas originally. There is no attempt at staging in this concert performance; everyone just stands and sings.
As is usually the case on their label, the Berliners allow you to play the music in several formats: on conventional Red Book CDs, on high-res, multi-channel 5.1 Blu-ray video discs (sorry, they won’t play on DVD-only machines), and on “studio master” digital downloads. Engraved on the Blu-ray discs, along with the performances, are three video features: a documentary film, Short Rides With John Adams, on Adams’ visits to Berlin, where the casual Northern Californian seems to be right at home in the hip ambience of the old Prussian capital; an interview with Adams conducted by one of the orchestra’s horn players, Sarah Willis; and a mutual-admiration-society dialogue between Adams and inevitable co-conspirator Peter Sellars.
The book within the hard-bound case is loaded with garden and concert-hall photos by Wolfgang Tillmans, essays toasting the composer, and librettos for the vocal works. Also included is a seven-day voucher for the BPO’s Digital Concert Hall.
With its combination of composer performances, Rolls-Royce-class orchestra, richly-upholstered sound, and lavish packaging, The John Adams Edition is the all-in-one Adams anthology to have in the absence of the out-of-print John Adams Earbox, which in any case doesn’t include anything from the last 20 years. For those who stream, the Earbox collection can still be found on Spotify and Apple Music. A word to the wise and thrifty: The Berlin Philharmonic’s website has this John Adams Edition for only $79, beating both Amazon and ArkivMusic as of this writing.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.