Adams: My Father Knew Charles Ives; Harmonielehre review – evocations of New England | Classical music


Though the San Francisco Symphony brought it to London just a week after the premiere in 2003, My Father Knew Charles Ives has had few British performances since, and remains one of John Adams’s less well-known orchestral scores. It’s a substantial work – three movements lasting nearly half an hour – designed both as a homage to the two men mentioned in the title, and as an evocation of the New England in which they both lived and Adams himself grew up.

John Adams: My Father Knew Charles Ives; Harmonielehre album cover

His father didn’t actually meet Ives, but the composer thinks the two men might have had a lot in common – Ives’s father was a Connecticut bandmaster, and his own father played in a local regimental band, and both were inspired by the writings of the New England transcendentalists, especially Henry Thoreau. But it’s the impressionism of one of Ives’s best-known works, Three Pieces in New England, that seems to have been Adams’s musical model, though never quite toppling over into pastiche. The first movement, Concord, named after Adams’s home town in New Hampshire, unfolds a languorous trumpet solo over hazy strings and chirruping woodwind; the second, The Lake, a “summer nocturne” according to Adams, carries distant hints of a dance band, and the third, The Mountain, opens again with the solo trumpet, inevitably recalling Ives’s Unanswered Question.

Adams himself conducted an earlier Nonesuch recording of My Father with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. This Nashville one, conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero, certainly matches that one for the delicacy and refinement of the textures, though the performance of the other work here, Harmonielehre, one of Adams’s greatest achievements, is less convincing, and never quite summons up the power and majesty that the score can convey.

This week’s other pick

Naxos’s latest disc of Steve Reich, from the Holst-Sinfonietta conducted by Klaus Simon, also pairs a familiar work, City Life, in which the recorded sounds of New York underpin the ensemble, with music that is less well-known. There are two of the Counterpoint series with tape – Vermont, for flutes, and New York for clarinets – and the rather strident, raw-edged ensemble piece Eight Lines, together with a very early work recorded for the first time. That’s Music for Two or More Pianos from 1964, one of the first scores Reich completed after realising that he was happier writing tonal music rather than the atonal pieces he had composed while studying with Luciano Berio; it’s a Feldman-like sequence of chords, to be played and repeated in whatever tempo and rhythm the players choose, sometimes hypnotic, sometimes insistent in this performance.


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