Double Play: Short ride, high flight, long face: DISCS: Stephen Johnson and Edward Seckerson take a collision course with John Adams and Henry Purcell

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The Independent Culture
JOHN ADAMS: Harmonielehre. The Chairman Dances. Tromba Lontana. Short Ride in a Fast Machine City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Simon Rattle (EMI CDC 5 55051 2)

TRAVELS with John Adams: simply buckle up, sit back and enjoy the rides. The short and snappy one 'in a fast machine' is a palpable hit, and Rattle is definitely driving a Porsche. Percussive sparking plugs give ignition and lift-off in a kind of 'fanfare for the high-flying man'. The Chairman Dances, a spin-off from Adams' opera Nixon in China, chugs and foxtrots by: Crepe de Chine, Madison Avenue chinoiserie, cheeky and engaging.

Even Adams at his most minimalistic has always been a more eventful, 'happening' composer than certain of his peers. But his is minimalism on a maximalist canvas. Harmonielehre certainly is. This is real back-to-the-future stuff: pure theatre and very Californian. A searching post-Wagnerian melody rises from the 'new age' gyrations of the first movement; the middle movement, entitled 'The Amfortas Wound', climaxes in an outrageous allusion to the trumpet-spiked dissonance from Mahler's Symphony No 10. Some of it is a little too Spielbergian, more John Williams than John Adams, but it's hugely entertaining and brilliantly performed. ES

IT ought to be encouraging to see works by a composer who is still very much alive getting second recordings. In fact Adams's 'Foxtrot for Orchestra', The Chairman Dances, and Short Ride in a Fast Machine may be on their way to becoming popular concert items. So why should Simon Rattle devote his precious time and energy to them when there are so many more deserving contemporary composers crying out for his super-intelligent advocacy?

To be honest, I don't even think he does them particularly well: the Edo de Waart versions on Nonesuch may not have been so well recorded, but they had a sharper edge - more rhythmic bite. If the inflated, pretentious and in the end drippingly saccharine Harmonielehre is this disc's main raison d'etre, that's even more depressing. It may turn out to have been an important stage in Adams' development away from pure minimalism, but taken for itself, this is post- modernism at its emptiest, grasping at the past in a desperate effort to forget the void within. The more it tries, the less it convinces. SJ

PURCELL: Music for the Funeral

of Queen Mary

Choir of Winchester Cathedral,

Baroque Brass of London,

Brandenburg Consort / David Hill

(Argo 436 833-2)

BEYOND the sumptuous state occasion there are unmistakably personal resonances. Purcell's right royal send-off for his favourite monarch came from the heart. In two settings of 'Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets' the grief is in the restraint - the atmosphere that of a celebratory ode turned in on itself.

No less personal but more publicly expressed is the anthem 'O, I'm sick of life', the harmony closing in so dramatically with the darkness of that 'land where death, confusion, endless night, and horror reign'. But in the midst of death there is always life. 'Rejoice in the Lord alway' brings on pristine string colours and chiming vocals. The winter-to-spring metaphor of 'My Beloved Spake' is replete with innocent back-to-nature imagery.

For me, though, real spiritual sustenance comes in heavenly five-part harmony: the anthem 'Remember not, Lord, our offences', a concise, richly imagined supplication lasting a mere three minutes, is alone worth the price of the disc. ES

ONE day the British musical public will stop the ritual honouring of Purcell's name and start taking him seriously. They will discover that the Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary contains some of the most glorious things in the history of church music. 'My Beloved Spake' and 'Rejoice in the Lord alway' are gorgeous, joyous pieces. Just before the end of this disc comes an astonishing masterpiece, 'Hear my prayer O Lord', an outpouring of agonised supplication expressed in harmonic shifts that send tiny claws running up and down the spine.

This new recording makes a good introduction. I admit that this kind of polished Anglican excellence can be a little on the chilly side, but what beautiful, secure singing it is, tellingly supported by the strings of the Brandenburg Consort and the brass and drums of Baroque Brass of London. Unless you're absolutely convinced that music began with Bach, try it. SJ