- John Adams: Complete Piano Music
Although relatively unknown to music audiences—unlike his orchestral and operatic works—John Adams’s piano music forms an important part of his compositional legacy: China Gates and Phrygian Gates, both from 1977, are regarded as an “opus one” by the composer and critics alike, the “first coherent statements in a new language,” that is, Adams’s personal brand of minimalism.1 This 2007 release of John Adams’s Complete Piano Music—one of Naxos’s bestsellers for that year—marks the second recording of his complete works for piano solo and two pianos.2 In 2004 the Nonesuch label (79699–2) released the first recording of Adams’s complete piano music, devoting three additional tracks to Adams’s Road Movies for piano and violin.3 Van Raat and Van Veen, two award-winning pianists who studied in Amsterdam, collaborate on this recording for the first time (though Van Veen plays the smaller role in the disc, only accompanying Van Raat on the second piano part of Hallelujah Junction).
In China Gates Van Raat clearly delineates the low, resonating pedal tones that signal new beginnings in the music—the “gates” of the title, a term borrowed from electronics to refer to a splicing procedure common to many early minimal works, where a change of mode occurs suddenly and without any type of transition. Although this is the simpler of Adams’s two gate pieces, there are nevertheless some challenges to a good performance. Adams notes that “special attention should be given to equalizing the volume of both hands so that no line is ever louder than another.”4 This is particularly tricky when the patterns from the left hand collide with those of the right, whereby a single note must occasionally be played with both hands.5 One has to take extra effort to play these at the same level as the other notes. Van Raat generally does well at this, despite several moments where some notes distractingly stand out.
Adams’s Phrygian Gates echoes China Gates, though with more grandiose proportions—a three-movement, twenty-five-minute work that requires a great deal of physical endurance.6 Here Van Raat plays a persuasive performance with unwavering intensity from beginning to end, with the proper execution of gate changes, and the constant adjustment of the weight of attacks to account for note collisions, ensuring that “no single note predominates over the others,” except, of course, where noted in the score. Perhaps the most distinguishable features of Van Raat’s performance are the clarity of sound and the sense of direction as Adams’s waveform sounds expand and contract. I find Van Raat’s balance more effective here than in China Gates, with its thinner and more delicate textures.7
Hallelujah Junction, named after a truck stop in the High Sierras on the California- Nevada border, demands great concentration from the performers to accurately execute musical patterns whose slight displacements provide a wonderful acoustic reverberation. While both players’ sensitivity to the rhythmic nuances, balance of parts, stylistic concerns, and textural clarity are superb, Van Raat (or the recording engineer) does not always heed Adams’s dynamic markings. At times, the result falters; in the middle section of the first movement, for example, Van Raat produces a harsh sound that is out of character in the high register (ca. 2′50″). [End Page 393]
American Berserk diverges from the stricter minimalist style in the earlier works, drawing explicitly upon influences as diverse as Charles Ives, Conlon Nancarrow, and jazz.8 Van Raat steers through the work’s intricate rhythms with exceptional poise and offers a convincing interpretation that derives a cohesive whole out of the “unpredictable, bipolar shifts of mood and tempo.”9 He takes full advantage of the extroverted outbursts in the work, several of which are marked with “wild!” and “berserk!” in the score, yet he could provide a greater range of...