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CD Review

Samuel Adler

Linn 515

José Serebrier Conducts

  • Symphony #6
  • Concerto For Cello & Orchestra 1
  • Drifting on Winds and Currents
1 Maximilian Hornung, cello
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/José Serebrier
Linn CKD515 59m
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What sort of symphonic music does the orchestration specialist whose The Study of Orchestration was favorably reviewed on Classical Net (ISBN-13: 978-0393920659) earlier this year write? Here is an excellent CD from Linn of an hour's worth of Adler's music with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra under José Serebrier which is both representative and stimulating.

Adler was born in 1928 in Mannheim. He left Germany for America at the start of World War II, where he was educated at Boston University and Harvard. Adler studied composition with Herbert Fromm, Walter Piston, Randall Thompson, Paul Hindemith, and Aaron Copland; and conducting with Serge Koussevitzky. Indeed, Adler has absorbed and reflects the excitement and flare of those composers, whose music can dart around in reverberant spaces gently tugging at the edge of melodies and harmonies while "playing" with a variety of percussive techniques – both specifically in that section of the orchestra, and in the brass in particular.

In fact, the first movement [tr.1] of the Sixth Symphony (which was written between 1984 and '85 and has its first recording – indeed its first performance – here) has the unusual marking, "Fast and with Much Excitement". This could so easily be overplayed and result in too much haste at the expense of substance. The same can be said of the third movement [tr.3] ("Fast and Rhythmic"), and of the second and fourth movements of the Cello Concerto [tr.s 5,7] ("Rhythmic, Fast and Joyous", "Fast and Playful"). Yet in the hands of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra the music emerges as having substance and purpose. Their acknowledgement of Adler's preponderance to infuse every bar with muscle and movement is tempered with exactitude and expression such that the music doesn't tire. Exuberance and energy without harshness.

The Cello Concerto exhibits the same drive as the Sixth Symphony, and Serebrier and his forces mould their playing to capture Adler's energy. It's a less frenetic work which begins – again noting the tempo marking "Slowly, Quietly, and very Expressively" – in such a way that by the end of the four alternating slow-fast-slow-fast movements, no-one has run out of steam. Indeed, cellist Maximilian Hornung plays without much unwanted sense of self, of his or his instrument's own importance. Instead, he (and it) are completely at the service of Adler's thought processes in developing music which is both purposeful and tender.

Robert Beaser in his short introduction in the booklet rightly places Adler in the tradition of American composers where sinew and energy prevail over the hybridization that characterizes some later composers. He rightly explains how the music on this CD represents a useful cross-section of Adler's work. And the short, Drifting on Winds and Currents at the end of the CD makes the point. It's a "memorial tone-poem" inspired by the poetry of Louise Glück. But the painting is more elusive than allusive. Again Serebrier and the RSNO understand how to communicate precisely the mood and purpose which Adler wanted. Although – in the same way as the road along which one has been running appears to keep moving when one stops – the mystery which Adler is aiming for at the start, the calm and pause, perhaps go by default here.

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra plays with a splendid blend of pace, excitement, attack, engagement on the one hand; and deference to the specifics of the music, sense of its nuances, delicacy, and reflection on what's really happening on the other. Rarely do they seem to be "exploring" Adler's journey with him, to be developing the music as it emerges. That would suit some orchestral pieces of this idiom because instrument entries and progressions can often be quizzical, momentary and tentative, almost – as can be heard throughout the third movement [tr.3] of the Symphony in particular. Adler, though, knows what he wants. And Serebrier and the RNSO give it to him. And to us. It's not that Adler's writing is fragmentary. But that (as Adler himself says in his own essay in the CD's booklet) that music expresses how life is, how one lives it, what one feels and how life makes one feel. To know this is to add to the experience of listening to this music.

Serebrier's approach is to make the most of the fact that Adler is so interested in orchestral color, in the varying timbral combinations, that each section of the orchestra (at times soloists therein) seems to be featured in succession. Yet the conductor refuses to treat this passion for contrast as an open toy box from which items are to be flung. He starts with a conviction that the whole is what counts – and sees it through from start to finish. In that much of Adler's writing could be described as consciously chromatic neo-classicism, to perform it well is both easy to do and difficult to do well: it has to retain its essence. Yet at the same time it has to be recognizable in its tradition. Again, Serebrier has understood this and – by letting his musicians' immense technical skills have their way with the music's corners, turns and runs-for-home – he does a real service to what Adler wants to be the effect on us. The music is kaleidoscopic and mercurial. So the playing needs to be all the more controlled. And it is.

The acoustic is that of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra Centre in Glasgow, where this CD was recorded in September 2015. It adds just the right amount of atmosphere and space without ever trying to substitute these for the music's clarity of direction and mood. Linn's booklet is particularly helpful in its portraits of the composer, his place in American music, the performers and music itself. If Adler is new to you and/or you want to sample his symphonic output, then don't let this release pass you by.

Copyright © 2016, Mark Sealey