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By JOHN FLEMING and JOHN BELL YOUNG

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 1, 2001


ADAMS: CENTURY ROLLS, LOLLAPALOOZA, SLONIMSKY'S EARBOX; EMANUEL AX, PIANO; CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA/CHRISTOPH VON DOHNANYI, CONDUCTOR; HALLE ORCHESTRA/KENT NAGANO, CONDUCTOR (NONESUCH) -- American symphony orchestras perform the music of John Adams more than that of any other living composer, and it's not hard to figure out why. As conductor Simon Rattle has said, Adams' music "always seems to be moving forward in space." That propulsive momentum is on display in the sparkling Century Rolls, a piano concerto commissioned by Emanuel Ax and the Cleveland Orchestra, who perform it here under Christoph von Dohnanyi.

Inspired by player piano music from the 1920s, the concerto succeeds beautifully in achieving Adams' goal of writing for "an orchestra and solo piano tightly but happily aligned amongst the cogs and wheels of a bustling rhythmic machine." Chock-full of references to jazz pianists such as Fats Waller and George Gershwin, the piece rockets right along, slowing down only for the middle movement, Manny's Gym, an homage to Satie's delicate gymnopedies, before launching into the briskly syncopated finale, Hail Bop. Adams has been called an American Ravel, whose G-major concerto is quoted inCentury Rolls.

Ax, known for his Chopin, Schumann and Brahms, is not the bluesiest of pianists, but he does a nice job in the concerto's bright, plinkety-plunk style. The Cleveland trumpet section gets a good workout. It will be interesting to see how many other pianists add the work to their repertoire, and how many orchestras program it.

The CD also includes the rambunctious, brassy Lollapalooza and Slonimsky's Earbox, both previously issued on The John Adams Earbox, a 10-CD set for Nonesuch. They're given a terrific performance by England's Halle Orchestra, Kent Nagano conducting, with Slonimsky's Earbox (named for musical lexicographer extraordinaire Nicholas Slonimsky) sounding especially impressive in its fleet virtuosity. A-. -- JOHN FLEMING, Times performing arts critic

* * *

MAHLER: SYMPHONY NO. 8, ROYAL CONCERTGEBOUW ORCHESTRA, RICCARDO CHAILLY (DECCA) When Mahler described his "Symphony of a Thousand" to a friend as "a gift to the nation," he grossly underestimated its importance. So immeasurable is its musical and aesthetic content, so profound its philosophical and religious message that "a gift to humanity" would surely have been more apt.

Mahler, a modernist at heart, never approved of the title for this work, but the number comes close to the 756 musicians it requires. Scored for an immense orchestra that, in addition to a full compliment of strings, includes two choirs, a four-tier brass section, eight solo singers, a concert organ, a harmonium and a mandolin, the Eighth is at once a grand panegyric to the human spirit and an even grander allegory.

Like Beethoven's autumnal Ninth Symphony, Mahler's Eighth is as much a musical work as it is a religious experience, an abstract expression of the human condition.

The Eighth is a piece of heaven on earth. If only the same were true about Riccardo Chailly's lackluster performance, suffering as it does from a kind of overall inertia and rhythmic paralysis, saved only by the glorious sound and ensemble playing of the Concertgebouw.

Still, Chailly's technically precise, superficially exciting but ultimately academic reading fails to resonate with the depth of passion the work demands in virtually every measure. Sounding as if he were embarrassed by it all, Chailly scales things back to such an extent that it emerges as little more than chamber music, a move from the public to the private. That is not what the Eighth is all about.

The soloists are in fine voice (save for the Gloria sit Patri Domino, where things descend into so much screaming), but that does little to ameliorate Chailly's schoolmarmish musicianship. Savvy Mahlerites know that there is no greater reading on record than Jascha Horenstein's incomparable 1959 concert performance with the London Symphony Orchestra. (BBC Legends). Heaven is still available, but on a different label. C. -- JOHN BELL YOUNG, Times correspondent

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