For some people this will be the perfect Christmas present, a gift with real meaning.
Andrew McGregor 2002-11-20
El Niño has existed for less than a year, yet it feels like longer already. And while I know it's pretty pointless trying to predict which new works will still be getting public performances in twenty years time, I feel like sticking my neck out on this one. John Adams's nativity oratorio is a winner, a very palpable hit - an intelligent, emotional and sometimes magical re-telling of the old, old story from a new perspective. Adams wants us to experience the birth of the child from the mother's point of view, and realising that the traditional biblical texts couldn't possibly do this on their own, he's drawn on a wide variety of sources to engage our emotions: Hildegard of Bingen, poems by Hispanic women, even the Apocrypha and the Wakefield Mystery Plays.
Adams asks us to think about the miracle of birth afresh, and to help us he's devised one of his most rewarding scores. Those familiar Adams-isms are all there: the chugging chords, the motor-rhythms, the stammering vocal lines familiar from his operas...but there are references to Bach oratorio and Handel as well, and some of the most beautiful episodes I've heard in any of his music.
The recording was made during the original production run at the Châtelet Theatre in Paris, and you can tell the cast has the music in their bones. Dawn Upshaw brings a beautiful simplicity to Mary, Willard White is magnificent as the angry, baffled and then humbled Joseph, and the chorus of three counter-tenors is really effective. The performance gets the atmospheric recording it deserves, and shorn of the dizzying multimedia kaleidoscope that was the original Peter Sellar's production, El Niño emerges with a new radiance and beauty on record.
At a time when other major companies are putting yet more Messiah recordings on the Christmas market, Nonesuch should be thanked for offering such an eloquent alternative. For some people this will be the perfect Christmas present, a gift with real meaning.