America’s leading contemporary symphonist has never written a Symphony No. 1. That doesn’t mean Adams hasn’t been turning out amazing essays for orchestra over the last 30 years. This streak begins properly with “Harmonielehre” (named after a Schoenberg text on harmony), which starts off with a bang. Or, more precisely, with 40 bangs in a row.
Many listeners prize Edo de Waart’s premiere recording of the piece, available on Nonesuch, and it is a really good version. But this live release gives a more urgent (if occasionally uneven) account. David Robertson turns up the opening timpani blasts louder than any other conductor. And for most of this marathon work, the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra does a grand job of not falling off after such a riveting opening high. The brooding middle movement is pregnant with drama (as well as trunk-rattling low brass). Only a few of the rhythmic steps in the final movement find themselves tripped up, though the performance recovers nicely in the run up to the blazing finale. And the overall sound production is impressively rich, especially for a live recording.