As beacons of light in the midst of the perilous year 2020, three substantial piano concertos, all premiered in 2019, were released on record for the very first time.
Thomas Adès’s Piano Concerto was caught on disc in conjunction with its first performances in Boston in March 2019 by Deutsche Grammophon, with the composer conducting the Boston Symphony and Kirill Gerstein as soloist.Teaming up with the Helsinki Philharmonic and Susanna Mälkki, Andreas Haefliger recorded Dieter Ammann’s The Piano Concerto (Gran Toccata) (2016-19) for BIS in the course of the Finnish premiere performances in the eraly days of November 2019.
John Adams’s third foray into the realm of the piano concerto, Must the Devil Have all the Good Tunes? (2018) was premiered by Yuja Wang and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on 7 March 2019, incidentally the very same day the Adès concerto got its first outing at the Symphony Hall, Boston.
Written for Yuja Wang, in celebration of her artistry and virtuosity, Must the Devil Have all the Good Tunes? was performed by her again in August 2019 at the Hollywood Bowl, followed by the European premiere at the Edinburgh festival. Further outings in Los Angeles and across the US ensued in November, alongside the concerto’s first arrival in London, as a part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic residency et the Barbican.
The Deutsche Grammophon premiere recording, released on vinyl and in various download formats, including an Apple Music video album, was recorded in conjunction with the Disney Hall performances in November 2019.
Must the Devil Have all the Good Tunes? is Adams’s third take on the medium of the piano concerto. Each of his three iterations has its own, distinctive sonic identity.
The fifteen-minute Eros Piano (1989) was inspired by Tōru Takemitsu’s Riverrun (1984) for piano and orchestra. Conceived as a tribute to Takemitsu, Bill Evans and Paul Crossley, who gave the first performance with the composer conducting the London Sinfonietta, Eros Piano is written as a sublime soliloquy, with the chamber orchestra providing the atmosphere for the soloist’s quasi-improvisatory musings.
The second concerto, Century Rolls (1997), was written for Emanuel Ax, who premiered the piece with Christoph von Dohnányi conducting the Cleveland Orchestra on 25 September 1997. As suggested by its title, Adams’s initial impetus for Century Rolls was rooted in the realm of player piano rolls, from Gershwin to Nancarrow. A full-scale concerto in three moments, Century Rolls has found its more-than-deserved place in the repertoire, as its frequent performances testify.
Must the Devil Have all the Good Tunes?, in its turn, assumes the guise of a dance macabre, though not in the traditional sense. Its three movements, played without pause, are more akin to funk than Liszt or Saint-Saëns. Scored for a full symphonic ensemble, augmented by basset horn, bass guitar, orchestral honky-tonk piano and almglocken, Must the Devil Have all the Good Tunes? is clad in tremendous spectrum of sonic colour.
Regarding to Adams’s chosen title, the origins of the quotation are somewhat apocryphal, but it is often attributed to Martin Luther, the seminal figure of Reformation as well as a composer and music-lover. For Luther, music was his chosen tool for connecting people and conveying the essence of theology in the most communicative manner conceivable.
While Adams’s music may be far removed from the realm of the Lutheran hymn, both composers share an unprejudiced tendency for fusing together all kinds of musical idioms, highbrow and vernacular, in order to create expressive new entities, rooted in interchange and communication.
The outer movements of the new, twenty-eight-minute concerto are propelled by the incessant flow of the solo part, interwoven with the giant funk of the orchestral fabric.
The opening section of the first movement, marked Gritty, funky, but in Strict Tempo, is launched into full groove by the soloist, with the lower strings setting up sonic pillars to support the piano part, echoed by the honky-tonk piano.
Upper strings, bass guitar and woodwinds join, and tension within the orchestral fabric begins to grow. Colored by snap pizzicati, the music builds up to the onset of the Twitchy, Bot-Like main section at figure C (at 1:19 on the present recording).
Punctuated by almglocken and bass guitar, the soloist plunges into whirlwind-of-a-dance, accompanied by grinning brass lines. Gradually the whole ensemble in interlocked into a savage parade of caustic wit, clad in the most tremendous musical guise imaginable.
Eventually at bar 372 (at 9:30 on the album recording), the tempo suddenly cools down and the textures thin down, as the first movement lands on its coda. An allusion to the opening of Prélude à la nuit from Maurice Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole (1907) is heard on the violas, as the solo line wanders down towards the dreamscapes of the second movement.
Marked Much Slower; Gently, Relaxed, the nocturnal central movement is clad in candle-lit colours. Above its orchestral tapestry of twilight and long shadows, the solo piano floats mid-air, humming its tunes in contemplation, to the most enchanting effect.
Midway through the movement, the airy, dream-like textures become more fragmented, and tactile, charged with subtle tension. A ground pulse emerges from the double basses, paving the transition to the third movement.
The Più mosso. Obsession / Swing finale, opens with a twenty-two-bar orchestral introduction, with the soloist interlocking into the 4/4 pulse. At figure I2 (0:42 on the recording) she moves to 12/8 while introducing the angular main melody.
At 1.52, the orchestra switches gear, and the music goes back to the groove of the opening movement. The pace mounts, and the soloist keeps pushing through the orchestral fabric, giving rise to a thrilling car chase scene in concertante setting.
In the coda, the orchestra tries to close the movement with a sustained string chord at bars 227-229 (5:53 on the album), but the soloist keeps going. The second attempt at bars 257-260 (6:31) fails equally. Only on its third appearance figure J3 (7:01) proves successful, leading to the final eleven-bar section of the coda.
On the very last bars, the soloist and the orchestra suddenly fall silent, with a singe c sharp from the bell left ringing in the manner of Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten (1977/1980), to bring the concerto to its close.
An outstanding premiere recording from beginning to end, the performance by Yuja Wang, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Dudamel is simply enthralling in its astounding virtuosity, inextinguishable energy and seamless teamwork.
The tremendous solo part, flowing almost incessant throughout the score, is completely owned by Wang. Her performance is a feast of rhythm and groove, ever eloquently phrased and nuanced. Be it the thunderous outer movements or the contemplative nocturnal vistas at the core of the concerto, her music-making is always perfectly attuned to Adams’s brilliant musical text.
With their Music & Artistic Director on the podium, the Los Angeles Philharmonic deliver one helluva performance. Ever in accordance with their soloist, the wonderful LA musicians endorse the innate energy and wit of Adams’s score, giving rise to a powerhouse reading of the orchestral textures.
Throughout all those changing meters and shifting accents, Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic maintain an impeccable sync with Wang. Beautifully articulated and brilliantly balanced, Adams’s intricate textures shine in luminous clarity.
Skillfully recorded and engineered by the DG team, the performance is well served by the recording. One of the most substantial releases of 2020, Must the Devil Have all the Good Tunes? is accompanied by a single, spot-on encore.
Rounding off the album, Wang provides a glimmering performance of one of the earliest pieces in Adams’s catalogue, the four-minute minimalist study China Gates (1977). A befitting cooler after the stormy concerto, China Gates is the perfect closing track.
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Yuja Wang, piano
John Adams: Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes? (2018) for piano and orchestra
John Adams: Phrygian Gates (1977) for piano
Recorded at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, November 2019
Deutsche Grammophon 4838950 (2020), 1 LP
© Jari Kallio