In a recent post, I suggested John Adams' Violin Concerto was better than his work for electric violin, The Dharma in Big Sur. I made this claim on the basis of two reasonably attentive listens to the now-unavailable BBC Real stream. In comparison, I've heard the Violin Concerto live in the intimate setting of Mission San Juan Bautista (and fifteen dramatic feet from the San Andreas Fault), and in recordings by Gidon Kremer, Robert McDuffie, and Leila Josefowicz. And yet, I still think, despite shallow exposure to The Dharma at Big Sur, it will prove to be the inferior work.
I'd had a couple of Popov recordings in my library for a while, but, as so often, hearing the music live showed me something that the CDs had not.
I had a similar experience with the Philip Glass opera, Akhnaten, in its recent Oakland production (and returning this month!). The CD was good if not compelling and the documentary explained the storyline (and taught me what a counter-tenor was). But until seeing it in the intimate Oakland production where the music and the drama (and the artists) made it spellbinding. Of course, that was opera where the visual is so important. For two instrumental performances illuminating the compressed experience of CD, Pierre-Laurent Aimard playing the Ligeti Etudes and the Arditti Quartet playing the Ligeti String Quartets both sparked a strong interest in those works. And in a counter-example, I heard the San Francisco Symphony, in Grace Cathedral, play a concert of Igor Stravinsky's music, was underwhelmed, and have not listened much to Stravinsky since.
Back to the Violin Concerto, Adams has an interesting comment:
I would say very frankly that there are things about the concerto that even to this day cause me trouble when I hear it. I continue to conduct it quite often, and each time I come back to it I find myself going through oscillating periods of doubt or insecurity over certain aspects of the piece. There are moments when it seems to me very satisfying, very true to what I'd want from a concerto written in my own time. But then there are times when the choice of the conventional form irritates me and makes me wish I'd struck out into less well-charted territory. In a certain sense the work is quite archaic in its form; it's a throwback to very traditional means of discourse and syntax, even down to the placement of the cadenza in the traditional location and the fast-slow-fast scenario...
Maybe Adams has managed to capture the inherent tension between tradition and innovation, giving the work power.