John’s Book of Alleged Dances
. String Quartet.
AZICA 71280 (67:13)
The CD is titled
Fellow Traveler: The Complete String Quartet Works of John Adams
. That is it: three works. A fourth work for quartet Adams considers a failure, though it was eventually reworked into one of his first big successes,
. The third work on this program,
, has not been published and is receiving its premiere recording here.
John’s Book of Alleged Dances
was written for the Kronos Quartet and recorded by them for the Nonesuch label in 1995/96. As the composer states in his online notes, “The music was composed with the personalities of the Kronos players very much in mind. The little pavane, “She’s So Fine,” for example, is expressly made for Joan Jeanrenaud’s sweetly lyrical high cello register, and the hoe-down, “Dogjam,” honors David Harrington’s bluegrass proclivities.” So it may be a heresy to say that, while they are not wildly dissimilar to the original, in some ways I prefer the Attacca Quartet’s high energy, high spirited, intensely cheeky performances. I like the prominence given the rhythm track that Adams prepared for six of the 10 pieces, I like the order chosen for the dances (the composer dictates no preferred sequence), and I like the precision of the playing that exceeds even that of the mighty Kronos. Not only that, but cellist Andrew Yee plays the harmonics as beautifully as Jeanrenaud does, and Schroeder (and violist Luke Fleming) can fiddle breakdowns with the best of them.
Precision is important in the String Quartet as well, but here I find myself as much taken with Amy Schroeder’s soaring line and her purity of tone. Adams wrote the quartet for the St. Lawrence String Quartet after he had heard it perform the
, and that quartet recorded the work for Nonesuch some months after the January 2009 premiere. That CD was one of my 2011 Want List picks, and rehearing it only confirms the impression. The Attacca, at that time a student ensemble at Juilliard, took on the Adams quartet on short notice to present it in a pre-premiere workshop recital after studying the work with the established ensemble. While the Attacca Quartet acknowledges the “invaluable instruction and mentorship,” they take a rather different tack to the St. Lawrence String Quartet’s warmer, essentially lyric approach. Most striking is the focused energy and the greater forward momentum even in the slower, more expressive sections. At just short of 20 minutes, Attacca’s first movement is almost a minute-and-a-half faster than that of the SLSQ; it is rhythmically sharper, and it draws clearer contrasts between the internal divisions of the work.
The previously unrecorded
was written to honor Peter Sellars, and appropriately enough given their collaborations, draws heavily on the music of
Nixon in China
, by way of the last movement of
Son of Chamber Symphony
. The title refers, according to annotator Fleming, who writes as well as he plays viola, to Sellar’s fascination with atomic scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer, suspected by the FBI of being a “fellow traveler” or secret communist sympathizer. Like all of the music presented here, it places extreme demands on the players, challenges that the Attacca Quartet appears to meet easily. I’ve mentioned all but second violinist Keiko Tokunaga, which is hardly fair given the unanimity of the ensemble’s virtuosity.
I have never run into Azica Records in Cleveland, Ohio, before. The website suggests it’s a low-budget operation, but their production values say quite the opposite. Engineering is outstanding, and the booklet, while perhaps a bit heavy on chicly faded pop-style photos of the performers, still finds plenty of room for information on the works and performers. All in all, an enormously satisfying debut album.
Ronald E. Grames