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John Adams Doctor Atomic Symphony Review

Album. Released 2009.  

BBC Review

Seethes with a turbulent energy, pent-up brass threatening to boil over.

Michael Quinn 2009

Few contemporary works deal with so crucial a crisis of conscience as John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, his opera about the creator of the atom bomb, Robert J Oppenheimer.

First seen in 2005 (and staged in the UK for this first time earlier this year by English National Opera), it hinges on Oppenheimer’s conflicted relationship with the project – enthralled by the pure science of splitting an atom but appalled by its lethal application. Reworked into a three-movement symphony, the dark profundity of the subject is foregrounded in characteristically complex, tightly woven musical ideas.

Depicting Oppenheimer’s Los Alamos, New Mexico laboratory, the opening movement seethes with a turbulent energy, pent-up brass threatening to boil over into explosive scalding cascades of mayhem and noise, strings straining against impossible pressures to maintain the outline of shape and form.

In Panic, the middle movement, percussion thumps ominously beneath orchestral forces dramatically battling with the rapidly rising emotional temperature. Incandescent brass figures sound warning fanfares as swirling strings are swept up into a maelstrom of heat and noise that seems to ominously anticipate greater nightmares still to come.

The concluding Trinity searches for point and purpose within Oppenheimer’s morally-ambivalent ambition by setting the heart-stopping aria Batter My Heart (heard in the opera’s first Act, it takes its lyrics from a poem by John Donne) for Susan Slaughter’s evocative solo trumpet.

Prompted by a book about Provence in southern France, the single-movement, 23-minute-long travelogue Guide to Strange Places proves a surprisingly apt coupling. Mysterious and intense, it prowls and probes the landscapes of ‘paysages insolites’ (strange places) with a mysterious, metaphorical intensity that tellingly calls to mind Charles Ives’ Central Park in the Dark.

As with the symphony, David Robertson – the work’s dedicatee – and his St Louis Symphony forces take a robustly muscular and rooted approach to Adams’ multi-layered, intricately woven latticework of sounds and colours leavened by flights of poetic fancy and fantasy. Recorded live, there’s an emphatic urgency to the playing, wholly in keeping with music that seems fervently alive to both felt and imagined experience.

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