Short Ride in a Fast Machine

John Adams wrote his orchestral fanfare “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” in 1986.  His description of it was suitably postminimalist: "You know how it is when someone asks you to ride in a terrific sports car, and then you wish you hadn't?"   For me, it conjures up a jalopy ride in Kansas or some such place, complete with potholes, backfires and hanging on for dear life – almost out of an old black and white silent movie.  It is very very clever indeed: for example, the flute motif with which the piece opens is not that of the woodblock that joins moments later, nor is it related to that of the brass instruments that follows. But together they take us into an unmistakeable world of speed and drama.

This performance, by a relatively youthful Rattle with his CBSO is the most percussive I know and, for that reason, the best.

You have it on YouTube.  If you want to stream it for better sound or to get the CD (well worth it) just try Adams Short Ride in a Fast Machine Rattle.

It was recorded when Rattle had a mop of black hair.  At a recent and exhilarating performance of Beethoven 7 with the LSO, he described himself as “the grey dwarf in the middle”.  Which gave me the idea for the next two pieces.

Two of the greatest maestros of the 20th century filmed at their peak.  Both vertically challenged, and as different in style as could be.

First up, Karajan conducting his Berlin Phil in a live 1978 performance of Berlioz’ Hungarian March from The Damnation of Faust, one of their regular encores.  What is astounding is his technique: suitably aerobic but could one really tell what he wants from what he is doing?  Conductor and orchestra in complete sync.  Note also the platform heels: surely no one ever accused HvonK of vanity.  It is about three minutes of blissful playing and a wonderful study in conducting.

Here it is, about 3 minutes of pure gold.

And so to the other not-so-tall maestro, Solti, filmed at the end of the 1950s with the mighty Vienna Philharmonic playing Siegfried’s funeral march.  I promise you don’t need to like Wagner to find his absolutely fascinating.  Solti is like a possessed Nibelung; and he makes absolutely plain everything that he wants from the orchestra, shaping every note with a demonic frenzy.  His conducting is not so much aerobic as a threat to health and safety; but it is completely riveting.  There is much else to wonder at apart from his conducting: the cymbal player is a joy; the first trumpet looks like a DDR politician; and the horns and trumpets are Viennese, meaning that their instruments are a completely different configuration from normal ones.  This was filmed during the recording of the famous Solti Ring for Decca, and it becomes clear at the end of the clip that they did the Funeral March in one take.  Those of you who have the recording already will know that it is one of the highlights of the project.  Sets you up nicely for the collapse of Valhalla.

It is safe to remove earplugs at the end.

by Jeremy Stuart-Smith