Not quite Harmonium

Is Naxos product mediocre? 84% of the Overgrown Path readers who voted in the recent poll (and the response was the biggest ever) said no. Which will come as no surprise to anyone other than John Adams. Talking of which, above is the first recording of John Adams' music that I ever bought. It is the 1984 ECM recording of Harmonium made by Edo de Waart and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Yes, that is a vinyl LP, strange how things go full circle.

The credits for that ECM LP tell an interesting story. The recording was made in Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. John Newton was the engineer, and mixing and editing is credited to Martin Wieland, Manfred Eicher and John Adams at the Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg. ECM founder Manfred Eicher did not travel from Germany to San Francisco for the sessions, a decision that was not taken well by the ambitious young composer. This precipitated John Adams' move to the American Nonesuch label, where he remains twenty-five years later.

Nonesuch was started in 1964 by Jac Holzman, who had previously founded Elektra Records in 1950. His vision for Nonesuch was to make classical music records available to college students with tight budgets. In the early days this meant licensing recordings from European classical labels and selling them at the budget price of $2.50. This classical repertoire was supplemented by the pioneering Nonesuch Explorer Series of world music in 1967, a series which has recently been re-issued on CD. Jazz was added to the catalogue from 1984. The label had some remarkable successes with niche releases, including George Crumb's Ancient Voices of Children which sold more than 70,000 units, in a performance by the Contemporary Classical Ensemble (CCE) and featured mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani.

Nonesuch was bought by a predecessor of Warner Communications in 1970, and three years later Holzman took on other responsibilities within the group. In 1983 Robert Hurwitz joined Nonesuch from the position of head of ECM America. Nonesuch continues as a label within Time Warner and still carries Hurwitz's imprint. Its artists today include, as well as John Adams (who has an exclusive contract with them), Richard Goode, the Kronos Quartet, Steve Reich (also exclusive), Dawn Upshaw and Brad Mehldau.

At this point the overgrown path crosses the Atlantic. Nonesuch is also the alternative spelling for Nonsuch Palace, the legendary royal residence built by Henry VIII at Ewell in Surrey, England. Glyn County Grammar School in Ewell has two famous alumni with musical connections. One was David Hemmings, with whom Benjamin Britten had a champagne moment. The other was Barry Wordsworth, a (rare) conductor with integrity. One of the school's many other pupils was me. Which takes this overgrown path goes full circle. It has been speculated that Nonsuch Palace was the venue for the first performance of Thomas Tallis’ sublime 40 part motet Spem in alium. Now playing is the Kronos Quartet transcription of that masterpiece, recorded on … Nonesuch.

What do the following posts have in common? Look no hands, This man is dangerous, Dances for peace, and Requiem for Adam? They all feature classic Nonesuch recordings.
Header photo (c) On An Overgrown Path 2009. Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Pliable said…
It is quite confusing that the Kronos Quartet's take on the Tallis motet is on Black Angels, not their CD titles Early Music.

The latter is recommended as well, but does include music by John Cage and Harry Partch!
Pliable said…
Email received:


The Contemporary Chamber Ensemble that recorded Ancient Voices is *not* the college group to which you linked. Arthur Weisberg led the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, a group of New York free-lancers, beginning back at a moment in the '60s when such groups devoted to new music were exceedingly rare. (I believe they may have been the first such ensemble in the United States.) The very high level at which they performed is attested by their numerous recordings on Nonesuch, including works by Rochberg, Wernick, Shifrin, and Wolpe, as well as many others. The personnel included pianist Gil Kalish, a superb collaborative pianist (Jan De Gaetani's longtime accompanist - their Ives recordings have never been bettered) as well as an underrated solo artist, with wonderful Ives and Haydn recordings on Nonesuch. I remember Weisberg giving brilliant performances of works by Carter, Martino and Earle Brown with a student ensemble when I attended Yale's summer program at Norfolk, Conn. in the early 80s.

The story of Nonesuch is incomplete without the name Teresa Sterne.

It was her vision that made Nonesuch such a remarkable label during the 1960s and '70s. Nonesuch remains a valuable enterprise, but it seems a shame that the current management's taste does not encompass more of the kind of composers that were represented on the label during Ms. Sterne's tenure.

On a personal note: I once experienced a memorable elevator ride at Carnegie Hall, riding in the same car with Tracy Sterne and Issac Stern. (no relation.) Ms. Sterne took the opportunity to bring up the apocryphal review of Mr. Stern's violin playing, headlined "No tone left un-Sterned."

There is a wonderful reminiscence by Ms. Sterne of the recording sessions for Ancient Voices, found in the C. F. Peters volume about Crumb, issued in 1986.

The all-night session for Ancient Voices took place not in a studio, but in the unheated, freezing cold ballroom of a New York hotel. Incredible that one of the greatest recordings I know was made under such circumstances.


Why is John Adams the composer you love to hate? A good bit of the Naxos catalog is indeed mediocre - not all, possibly not even the majority. Your question - is the label mediocre? - was insufficiently precise to be meaningful. I don't know the Naxos Adams recordings - maybe they are fine. It is not clear if Adams was referring to Naxos in general, or recordings of his own music on Naxos. At any rate, the Adams recordings on Nonesuch are uniformly excellent, more uniformly than the overall standard at Naxos. As for Adams ' questioning Britten's text settings - I think this is because he is coming from a point of view that emphasizes American vernacular idioms. If American pop is your touchstone, then Pears singing Britten might seem stuffy. I say this as a fan of Pears and Britten.


One last point - if the Nonesuch recording of Ancient Voices sold 70,000 copies, is it accurate to call it a niche recording?

Thanks again for your stimulating writing.

James Primosch
Pliable said…
James, thanks for correcting me on the identity of the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble. When I was researching that piece I had my doubts as to whether I had identified the right group. Once again my readers have filled the story in, and I have removed the incorrect link.

Why is John Adams the composer you love to hate?

Please be assured I do not 'hate' John Adams, or any other composer for that matter. My LP and CD colection has many, many recordings of Adams' music spanning twenty-five years. I have heard, and appreciated, his work many times in the concert hall, and I have written about it numerous times on the blog.

However I do find John Adams' serial pursuit of the sound-byte unhelpful, and I am not afraid to state that view here. The response to the poll, even allowing for alleged 'imprecision', confirms that a surprising number of readers also found his comment about Naxos unhelpful. Which makes the resounding silence elsewhere the more surprising.
Rodney Lister said…
Jac Holzman's history of Electra/Nonesuch, Follow the Music, is a great read.
JMW said…
His comment was not jut unhelpful. It is demonstrably wrong.
welker said…
I read & enjoy your blog from time to time, but only now do I realise you went to my old school, Glyn Grammar. I was there from '55-62. Who was your music teacher, if I may ask? I'm trying to remember the name of mine, my memory is porous. I had never heard that the Tallis might have been first sung at Nonesuch Palace. You omit to mention that the palace has long gone, I seem to remember a girls' school that my sister went to.
Martin Walker
Pliable said…
Martin, I was at Glyn from 1961-68, so we just overlapped.

My music teacher was 'Charlie' Cleall. I can still remember playing the theme from Z Cars on the descant recorder in his lesson. The girl's went to Roseberry School, which was a suitably safe distance from Glyn.

I found this via Google -
Dan Johnson said…
My guess is that Adams feels burned by the Naxos recording of his I Was Looking at the Ceiling...—it's a problematic work in the one-disc Nonesuch version, but the complete recording released on Naxos (sung with thick German accents) is a truly grand botch. I haven't heard his other recordings on the label, some of which feature some very promising personnel, but I'll bet this is the very disc he had in mind when he dissed Naxos.

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