John Adams, Maximal Minimalist

United StatesUnited States Adams, Beethoven: John Adams (conductor), Jonathan Biss (piano), Seattle Symphony, Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 8.11.2012 (BJ)

First, the positives. It was an intriguing idea to couple a piece by the most maximal of American minimalists with one that ranks as, on the face of it, the most straightforward, the least subtle even, of Beethoven’s piano concertos.

Now a hoary 27 years old, Harmonielehre can still be considered among the strongest and most substantial of John Adams’s orchestral works. Its opening moments, with their evolving layers of superimposed metrical patterns, speak the language of minimalism, but as the music continues it points forward with increasing intensity to the more complex textural and harmonic methods Adams was later to follow. The work’s success in performance depends heavily on the prowess of an orchestra’s brass players, and the Seattle Symphony brass section rose admirably to the occasion, principal trumpet David Gordon in particular covering himself with glory. The composer is a practiced conductor, and he led the orchestra through a performance of ample verve and power.

Whether Adams’s conducting abilities are really up to the challenge of interpreting the great Austro-German classics is, however, a different question. When Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto suffers the kind of near-caricatured performance it received on this occasion, apportioning blame between soloist and conductor is a tough call. But I think Adams must receive some of it.

In strong contrast to the warmly burnished tone the orchestra’s strings produced for guest conductor Neeme Järvi just a week earlier, the sound this time was dispiritingly anaemic. Precious little distinction was made between the loud bits of the music and the soft ones, and phrasing seemed at time quite haphazard.

These characteristics were, unfortunately, duplicated in the playing of the soloist, Jonathan Biss. This young American pianist is widely admired, but I have yet to find him a convincing musician or even a convincing player in merely technical terms. Though the Fifth Concerto is an openly, almost militaristically, assertive piece (which no doubt explains the egregious nickname, “Emperor,” with which it has long been saddled), the music responds well to an interpretation that takes in considerable stretches of quiet playing – yet there were hardly any in this performance. Rather than singing, Biss’s tone at the top of the keyboard merely clanged. And such flexibilities of pulse that could be discerned seemed to stem not from interpretative intent but from a fairly unstable handling of technical challenges. The result was a prevailingly meaningless gabble, which made it hard for listeners to know, at any given moment, where exactly we were in the measure.

For the plodding account they gave of the middle movement, moreover, soloist and conductor must surely share responsibility. Both the solos and the orchestral music in the movement benefit when not only the direction “Adagio” but also its qualifying “un poco mosso” (“moving on a little”) are observed by the performers. It has long been known by now that the movement’s traditional “C” (or 4/4) time-signature was an editorial aberration, and that what Beethoven wrote was a cut-time 2/2, or “Alla breve,” with only two beats to the measure. The inescapable conclusion follows that the movement “must not be dragged,” as Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny explicitly warned in his essay On the Correct Performance of All Beethoven’s Piano Works; and it was, after all, Czerny that played the solo part at the first Vienna performance of the work in 1812, under the composer’s supervision.

It’s to be hoped that, through the good offices of pianist Emanuel Ax and conductor Ludovic Morlot, another great piano concerto, Brahms’s Second, will fare better next week. Meanwhile, despite the standing ovation the pianist rather predictably received from a large part of the audience, my own favorable memories of this concert attach only to the genuine excitement that the Adams work, and the orchestra’s playing of it, generated.

Bernard Jacobson