Adams Takes the Violin Up, Down, Around, and Through

Twenty-five years after the premiere of John Adams’ Violin Concerto, the music remains as vital, exhilarating, and strangely moving as the day it was birthed. An extremely demanding work, its three contrasting movements present a triathlon challenge of sorts to anyone who dares try to play them.

Here, she who rises to the challenge is violinist Leila Josefowicz. Provocatively pictured on the CD cover as a curious cross between an athlete in repose and Rodin’s reflective thinker, and shown inside the booklet in very hip, thoroughly artistic renegade drag, Josefowicz lives up to her reputation as a contemporary music specialist whose affinity for Adams’ music inspired him to write his Scheherazade.2 (Dramatic Symphony for Violin and Orchestra), which she premiered with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Alan Gilbert, in 2015. On this recording, her partner in crime, as it were, is another contemporary music champion, David Robertson, who leads the St. Louis Symphony in this astounding performance of the 33-minute concerto.

Auditioned in CD format —a 24/96 download is available at multiple sites —the recording puts Josefowicz front and center, with the orchestra rather atmospherically recorded behind her. The miking is clear enough to hear her inbreaths at the start of especially demanding passages —there are lots of them —as well as some subterranean thumps that may originate with Robertson. It all adds to the excitement, of which there is plenty.

Lest any musician be tempted to take their time or romanticize the opening movement, Adams names it for its metronome marking. Over a perpetually rising and falling accompaniment that Adams visualized as “a very regular, slowly repeating wave form, a staircase wave that goes up and down,” Josefowicz’s instrument engages in restless churning that becomes more animated and complex as the accompaniment grows increasingly assertive. Chromaticism reigns in this wild music, which demands that the violinist play more notes per minute than seems fair. The music builds and builds until it winds down, and the second movement begins.

In a period of relative rest entitled “Chaconne: Body through which the dream flows”—the movement’s title comes from the title of a poem by Robert Hass —the concerto grows contemplative, mournful, and mysterious. This middle movement’s journey, in which the violin grows exceedingly tender as the orchestra plums the depths, is as hypnotic as it is moving. It’s music to space out with, and exceedingly beautiful.

The final movement, “Toccare,” takes off at full tilt and never slows down. As viscerally thrilling as it gets, it builds and builds as it whirls round and round and becomes exceedingly more complex. The huge ending is astounding, and designed to bring cheering audience members to their feet in classic violin concerto fashion. Any performer who holds their breath is lost.

Nonesuch actually issued the first recording of the Violin Concerto, with Gidon Kremer as soloist, back in 1996. That CD paired the concerto with Adams’ Shaker Loops. This new one, however, issues the concerto all by itself. With the download selling for full price, and the CD for just a bit less than that, this marketing decision may encourage people to instead check out some other recordings of the work, including an older one on Telarc on which Robert McDuffie also plays the Glass Violin Concerto. More recent recordings variously pair the Adams with concertos by Harris, Korngold, and what initially seems like strangest of all bedfellows, Mendelssohn —until you realize the classic similarities in their structure. Adams’s music may not be romantic, but he does engage in a romance with the physical that will send you flying.

Short shrift on value is the only criticism I have for this effort. Josefowicz’s performance is sensational, and deserves to be heard. Those who choose it as their introduction to Adams’s music will likely find themselves searching for more and more.

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