John Adams I Am Love Review

Soundtrack. Released 2010.  

BBC Review

One of those rare soundtracks that merits – and rewards – repeated listening.

Michael Quinn 2010

This soundtrack album from director Luca Guadagnino’s well-received film I Am Love – a family drama set in Milan at the turn of the millennium – could just as easily have been issued as a Greatest Orchestral Hits collection of John Adams.

Culled from the composer’s back catalogue – Guadagnino claims to have conceived his film with Adams’ music specifically in mind, intending it to function “as a crucial emotional anchor” – the nine selections from seven works span the near two-decade period from 1978’s Shaker Loops to Century Rolls in 1996.

Originally composed for Adams’ ground-breaking 1987 opera Nixon in China but never used, and serving here as a de facto overture, The Chairman Dances is an extended orchestral foxtrot in which, the composer says, “themes, sometimes slinky and sentimental, at other times bravura and bounding” simmer, bubble and occasionally boil over with bustling immediacy in distinctive motivic signatures.

Tapping into the emotional undercurrents of the film’s narrative, Lollapalooza (a 40th birthday present in 1995 for conductor Simon Rattle) animatedly collides, compresses, stretches and strings together a “profusion of motives” like a fractured atom desperately trying to rein in its scattered electrons. The performance, by the Hallé Orchestra under Kent Nagano, is suitably spirited.

Used early on, the four-minute extract from the first movement of Century Rolls, (with Emanuel Ax at the piano) seems to point to the brittle marriage of the lead character, played by Tilda Swinton, who also co-produced the film. Additional emotional ballast comes courtesy of the quiet, lowering intensity of The Anfortas Wound, the darkly ravishing second part of Harmonielehre; the twisting, sinuous, minimalist-leaning lyricism of Loops and Verses, one of two pieces taken from Shaker Loops; and the unsettlingly trenchant insistency of Fearful Symmetries, shot through with a glittering sheen of synthesised samples, both of which find the composer conducting the Orchestra of St Luke’s.

Add in the haunting Desert Chorus from The Death of Klinghoffer (taken from Kent Nagano’s still compelling 15-year-old recording with Lyon Opera), and the final movement of Harmonielehre, with its delicately handled, deliciously executed blend of minimalism and neo-Romanticism, and this is one of those rare soundtracks that merits – and rewards – repeated listening.

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