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CD Review

John Adams

Century Rolls

  • Century Rolls *
  • Lollapalooza
  • Slonimsky's Earbox
* Emanuel Ax, piano
* Cleveland Orchestra/Christoph von Dohnányi
Hallé Orchestra/Kent Nagano
Nonesuch 79607-2 DDD 49:22
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Century Rolls is the new work here. (Lollapalooza and Slonimsky's Earbox appeared in the ten-CD John Adams Earbox in 1999.) It was pianist Emanuel Ax who requested new music for him and the Cleveland Orchestra. Ax and the Clevelanders have played this concerto of sorts many times, individually and together, since its première.

The title deserves explanation; it does not have anything to do with stale bread products. "Century" alludes to "the energy and musical imagery of the earlier part of the twentieth century." "Rolls" refers to antique piano-roll recordings that Adams listened to one night. He was impressed by "a certain bright, edgy quality and a rhythmic alertness" that characterized the "performances" in this medium, whether the originals were by Fats Waller or Sergei Rachmaninoff. This sound found its way into his new work.

Some of Adams's recent work has been unformed, as if the composer were between his last style and the one to come. Century Rolls is very assured, however. Particularly in the outer movements, there are echoes of Adams's compositions from earlier decades, including Grand Pianola Music and Fearful Symmetries. The untitled first movement begins with "twittering music" (a hat-tip, probably, to Paul Klee's "Twittering Machine"). The music is tightly woven, like a modernistic Brandenburg Concerto, and busy. Its pulse is even, with assertive piano embellishments redolent of both Baroque music and jazz. The second movement is called "Manny's Gym" – an allusion to Emanuel Ax? Quiet and delicate, it comes close to "lifting" from the parallel movement of Ravel's Concerto in G and Erik Satie's Gymnopédies. The final movement has a driving and now uneven pulse, and it clownishly trips on its own shoelaces. Syncopations are more prominent now, and the price paid for this added musical sophistication seems to be a "Sorcerer's Apprentice"-like inability for the music to keep its mechanism in order; there are fits, starts, halts, and slapstick chases. In the right circumstances, one could find this self-important movement very funny. It is titled "Hail Bop" – a pun on the name of 1997's infamous non-comet, and on the music itself. Ax plays crisply, and with plenty of subjective tenderness in the middle movement. The Clevelanders, seldom the most light-hearted of orchestras, keep a straight face as they play the music brilliantly.

Lollapalooza, written for conductor Simon Rattle, is brutal Americana; it is the thuggish cousin of Adams's earlier Short Ride in a Fast Machine. If a sporting event – say professional football – needs a classical theme, Lollapalooza would be my first choice. Slonimsky's Earbox is less obvious and more developed. It is named for Nicholas Slonimsky, a staggeringly erudite author on music and music theory. This 13-minute work is like a good fireworks show. The thrills keep coming, but they are cleverly varied, and there is a clear feeling of development and climax as the music progresses. Nagano and the Hallé Orchestra know what the music is about.

Nonesuch's attractive packaging features a classic Weegee photo of Coney Islanders in 1940. I don't know that less than 30 minutes of new music justifies the cost of a full-price CD, however.

Copyright © 2001, Raymond Tuttle