American Counterpoint, released by EMI as part of its American Classics series, features the works of three modern composers, John Adams, John Cage, and Conlon Nancarrow, with conductors Simon Rattle and (pianist) Michael Tilson-Thomas as interpreters. The focus here will be on Adams’ stunning “Harmonielehre,” as rendered by Sir Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in three different parts (or movements).
Perhaps most known for his 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning “On the Transmigration of Souls” (commemorating the 9/11 attacks), and the recently revived opera “Nixon in China,” the 64-year-old Adams is associated with the minimalist genre, alongside other exponents as Philip Glass and Steve Reich. “Harmonielehre” (literally, “theory of harmony”) is also the name of a treatise by composer Arnold Schoenberg, who could be called the “granddaddy” of the minimalists.
Lush, dissonant, and melodic all at once, the amazing “Harmonielehre” came to Adams after a dream he had following a drive across San Francisco Bay and a tanker explosion he witnessed en route. The 1985 piece (in three movements) begins with staccato blasts that signal the remarkable musical journey to come: all surging chord progressions before segueing into a rich string segment that eventually moves back into looming expectation.
“The Antefortas Wound,” “Harmonielehre’s” second movement, loosely based on the legend of The Fisher King, is a respite from the preceding tension, beginning somberly and ominously, ending in ambivalent notes of mystery.
The final movement (enigmatically sub-titled “Meister Eckhart and Quackie”) was also inspired by a dream, this one of Adams’ daughter (whose nickname was “Quackie’), traveling through space accompanied by the 14th century mystic, Eckhart von Hochheim. (Whew!) It returns to the musical themes of the first movement, urgency unbound, minimalist motifs in full force, and climaxing in an exultant and majestic crescendo that soars in its grandeur.
American Counterpoint is rounded out with “Three Canons for Ursula” by Nancarrow and “Three Dances” by Cage. But it’s “Harmonielehre” that makes it a must listen.