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Adams’s El Niño: new recording reviewed

(October 2001)

Adams’s El Niño: new recording reviewed



"Christmas comes early"

Review of the new recording of John Adams's El Niño
by Andrew Clements

The Guardian
Classical CD of the Week
(21 September 2001)

Dawn Upshaw / Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson / Willard White / Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester / Kent Nagano
Nonesuch 79634 (2 CDs)

Click here to purchase this CD set from Amazon

Whatever label one wants to put on John Adams’s "nativity oratorio" – designed for the opera house and the concert hall – it is a powerfully effective and radiantly beautiful retelling of the Christmas story. Made in conjunction with its premiere, though not, it seems, taken directly from any one of the live performances, it appears even more impressive on disc than at its first performance at the Paris Châtelet in December last year. This recording reveals the countless details in the score that were lost in the theatre; numbers that seemed under-characterised live, take on a much sharper profile here.

Peter Sellars directed that first staging, and also had a hand in the libretto, which Adams assembled from a variety of sources. It proceeds more or less linearly from the Annunciation to the Flight into Egypt; some of the texts are familiar passages from the New Testament, but there are also episodes and stories only found in the apocryphal gospels of James and Pseudo-Matthew, as well as a medieval English carol and an extract from the Wakefield Mysteries.

Cutting across this sequence is another literary layer – poems by female Hispanic writers that offer women’s voices in this celebration and exploration of the mystery of the nativity; Adams’s working title for the piece was How Could This Happen?

The texts, 24 numbers altogether, are shared between the three soloists, a trio of counter tenors, and the full mixed chorus. The soloists sometimes have roles to play – the soprano, Dawn Upshaw, sings the numbers directly associated with Mary, and the baritone, Willard White, those expressing Joseph’s bewilderment, while the mezzo Lorraine Hunt Lieberson is allotted most of the Spanish texts – but elsewhere they take on the neutral roles of a conventional oratorio. The music switches effortlessly back and forth between the stark depictions of the drama and more contemplative reflections, giving each half of the evening-long piece a clear trajectory. From the moment El Niño opens, with pulsing orchestral chords and the chorus repeating the first word of I Sing of a Maiden (in a way that recalls the beginning of Adams’s Harmonium), the pacing is faultless.

On this beautiful balanced recording, urgently conducted by Kent Nagano, the skill of Adams’s orchestral writing can be fully appreciated. The vocal lines are cunningly fashioned to suit the strengths of these three particular singers – Upshaw’s bracing, uncomplicated openness, White’s rhetorical force, Hunt Lieberson’s matchless expressiveness and beauty of tone – and they are underpinned with textures that move in magically mysterious ways, with the sound of two sampling keyboards adding delicately dissonant traceries to meshing strings and wind.

Musically El Niño builds upon everything that Adams has accomplished so far, on the power and might of the big orchestral pieces, the high-flown operatic conventions of Nixon in China, the sombre, dark-hued meditations of The Death of Klinghoffer. It’s a majestic achievement.

Reproduced by kind permission of The Guardian and Andrew Clements.

Click here to read other articles on John Adams and El Niño


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