Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Doctor Atomic

I am enjoying a couple of new classical CDs that I received last week. Recently, I have been reviewing Anton Bruckner’s symphonies. Though Bruckner’s body of orchestral work is certainly not of the same caliber as, say, Gustav Mahler, there are many fine moments in his symphonies.

Back in 1971 the great conductor Herbert von Karajan recorded what many believe to be a definitive performance of Bruckner’s Seventh by the Berlin Philharmonic. This classic recording was remastered in 1996 and makes a great addition to my classical collection.

The third movement Scherzo of Bruckner’s Seventh is definitely the highlight of the work. It makes ample use of the string section in a powerfully constructed, recurring theme, kind of a march. Despite being remastered, the recording quality of the CD is noticeably “thinner” than more recent digital recordings. Giving the volume a nudge helps but the depth of the bass just isn’t where it should be.

Nevertheless, this is – by many accounts - a masterful interpretation and I have enjoyed listening to the symphony recently three times over as many days. Overall, I would place Bruckner in the "second-tier" of great symphonic composers along with the likes of Robert Schumann and Jean Sebelius. All are entertaining and rich but not in the elite symphonic class with Beethoven or Mahler or even Shostakovich for that matter.

What I have been listening more frequently to, however, is the other CD that I recently received. John Adams wrote an opera on Robert Oppenhiemer (if you can image such a thing) entitled Doctor Atomic in 2005. In 2007 he composed a “symphony” based on music from the opera.

I have posted on my difficulties with opera before. Whereas ballets are a great extension of the classical art in my opinion (I enjoy the dance aspects of classical performances), I simply cannot make it all the way through an opera. It’s just not my thing.

At any rate, I am thankful for Adams’ orchestration of the musical themes from his opera. Although I don’t think the Doctor Atomic Symphony really fits together as a symphony in terms of development and transformation, it is an interesting collection of musical ideas, most of which are superb listening experiences.

I am particularly fond of the second movement entitled "Panic" (beginning at about 2:33 into this youtube copy of the recording). Adams shows amazing compositional range here. It begins with a swarm of strings reminiscent of Lutoslawski or Shostakovich. A racing pace that creates a sphere of sound (at about 3:25 in the above youtube recording link). Then it gradually meanders into a Copelandesque western motif (about 40 seconds into this part of the youtube recording) before easing into a complex, yet often subtle (see about 4:50 into the second youtube link), brass and winds section supported by the orchestra as foundation, bold and inspiring, almost heroic.

The entire work is only about 22 minutes long. Hardly heroic in that sense. Some single movements of Bruckner's symphonies are that long. Adams' latest symphony is more precise and efficient, partly a minimalist influence. Panic is about 14 and half minutes in length. That makes it a near perfect piece for me to listen to in the morning on my headset as I sit in my study having my modest weekday coffee allowance. It is ironic I chose Panic as my morning devotional lately. But, the piece gets my mind going and the shift down into a masterful quietness punctuated by uneasy orchestral stirrings makes it a nice framework for which to address the working day.

While not as great a work as The Dharma at Big Sur, the Doctor Atomic Symphony proves that entertaining, new classical music remains with us.

All things have not faded into thin air.

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