Before last night I had reserved judgement on John Adams’ Grand Pianola Music (1982), which I knew from CD but hadn’t previously heard live. It was an effect-piece, I thought, so while it had left me a little cold in recorded form, I was open to the possibility that this enormous, ecstatic major-key pile-up would blow me away in the concert hall. But while City of London Sinfonia’s gleeful rendition in Cadogan Hall last night certainly made an impression, I can’t help but continue to think that the piece is a bit daft.

Wind players of City of London Sinfonia © Benjamin Harte
Wind players of City of London Sinfonia
© Benjamin Harte

Supposedly inspired by a dream in which several excessively long grand pianos travel at speed down a motorway, the musical content of the piece is hardly less “Freudian” than this dream, being all simple, effusive, repeating rhythms; bold, shimmering major chords; and huge swelling brass climaxes. There is even a wordless chorus of women which joins in occasionally. The fact that Adams acknowledges it as a celebration of musical clichés doesn’t make it any less indulgent, and I think it’s a piece best interpreted as a cheeky V-sign directed towards various influential serialist composers, rather than as a vision for the future of classical music.

It was all the stranger to hear such a brash offering from Adams in a concert which had earlier demonstrated his real capacity for nuance: Gnarly Buttons, his 1996 clarinet concerto for last night’s soloist and conductor Michael Collins, is a brilliant demonstration of the range of Adams’ compositional vocabulary. The first movement all revolves around a single melodic line which winds and slips between colours and textures, transferring from solo clarinet to the eccentric, synth-rich ensemble only gradually, and finding space for the odd banjo solo. The second, “Hoedown (Mad Cow)”, enters sillier territory, swaps the banjo for a mandolin, occasionally almost slips into 12-bar blues style, and features the oddest sampled interjection Cadogan Hall is likely to host any time soon. The third, though, is a beautiful and sobering conclusion, entitled “Put Your Loving Arms Around Me” and clearly deeply involved with those words. Lyrical passages alternate with sections which seem almost frightened by the movement’s emotional directness, and the result is hugely touching. Collins performed brilliantly, with obvious affection for the piece, and he directed the ensemble keenly as well, drawing out their best performance of the evening.

Prefacing both Adams works with Stravinsky was excellent programming. The soundworlds of these two composers complement each other surprisingly well, but significant differences in tone keep things lively – Adams comes across as a very direct sort of composer, who says roughly what he means, whereas Stravinsky is the master of red herrings. This is never more apparent than in this concert’s opener, his Octet, an early “neoclassical” work which apes Classical and/or Baroque forms and styles but never really sounds anything like music from these periods. The eight City of London Sinfonia players caught the sprightliness of this breezy piece well, though technically it wasn’t as slick as the Adams concerto which followed.

Stravinsky’s two sets of miniatures Three Pieces for clarinet solo and Three Pieces for string quartet were an equally beguiling and contradictory way in to Grand Pianola Music in the concert’s second half, with Collins providing an elegantly phrased solo and the Sinfonia’s string quartet catching something of the mood of these odd, gnomic fragments. Harsh, unfriendly and inconclusive, little could have been more opposed to the heady bombast to follow, and while Adams provided the happier ending, Stravinsky offered a little more food for thought.