American Counterpoint, released by EMI as part of its “American Classics” series, features the works of three modern composers, John Adams, Conlon Nancarrow, and John Cage, with conductors Simon Rattle and Michael Tilson-Thomas (pianist in the Cage piece) as interpreters. The focus here will be on Adams’ stunning Harmonielehre, as rendered by Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.
Perhaps most known for his 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning On the Transmigration of Souls (commemorating the 9/11 attacks), and the recently revived opera Nixon in China, the 64-year-old Adams is associated with the minimalist genre, alongside other exponents as Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Harmonielehre’s title (literally, “theory of harmony”) is also the name of a treatise by composer Arnold Schoenberg, who could be called the “granddaddy” of the minimalists.
Lush, dissonant, and melodic all at once, the amazing Harmonielehre came to Adams after a dream he had following a drive across San Francisco Bay and a tanker explosion he witnessed en route. The 1985 piece begins with staccato blasts that signal the remarkable musical journey to come: all surging chord progressions before segueing into a rich string segment that eventually moves back into looming expectation. “The Antefortas Wound,” Harmonielehre’s second movement, loosely based on the legend of The Fisher King, is a respite from the preceding tension, beginning somberly and ominously, ending in ambivalent notes of mystery.
The final movement (enigmatically titled “Meister Eckhart and Quackie”) was also inspired by a dream, this one of Adams’ daughter (whose nickname was “Quackie”), traveling through space accompanied by the 14th-Century mystic, Eckhart von Hochheim. (Whew!) It returns to the musical themes of the first movement, urgency unbound, minimalist motifs in full force, and culminating in an exultant and majestic crescendo that soars in its grandeur.
American Counterpoint is rounded out with Three Canons for Ursula by Nancarrow and Three Dances by Cage. But it’s the Harmonielehre that makes it a must listen.