In order to express accurately and succinctly what is important about this work and why I think it's crucial to the repertoire (and therefore why all you fellow Amazon-ians should immediately acquire a copy!), I'm going to ignore the peripheral issues of its complex source of inspiration, including its apparently overtly provocative title. I want to focus on the work's expressive content, which is what leads me to rate it as highly as I do.
I think Adams surpassed himself with this one: it's music of hitherto unguessed-at grandeur, breadth, narrative power and expressive richness. His mastery of musical architecture is superlative and we know from the very first note that this is going to be an epic journey.
Secondly, its overall structure in more detail: the first movement is an extended essay on a repeated melody which sets out on a vast journey through ever more inspiring landscapes. The second, inspired by Busoni's famous Berceuse Elegiaque written in memory of his mother, possesses an Olympian calm interrupted only by a visionary central section featuring powerful major triads in crescendo from the strings and awesome, cavernous sonorities from the brass (including 2 tubas!). The third movement is a typical Adamsian finale in texture and structure, but not in tone: the surface exuberence barely conceals the extremely dark, nostalgic emotional vein that runs through the entire work. The ending, in particular, is extremely effective in its ambiguity: unison F#s on trombones in crescendo.
I can't immediately think of any other work by a composer still living possessed of this kind of emotional "grip": in fact, I think we have to go back to the masterpieces of Messiaen to find anything comparable. In an age when much contemporary classical music seems to have reduced itself to a sort of shallow parade of the composer's obsessions, more of a manifesto for music than music itself, this work restores my faith in music as something able to encompass the world and express something truly universal.
Never mind its title; this is a big boned symphony. It follows on from his earlier "Harmonlehre" in its mixture of the late romantic, modern and minimalist. Its scope and epic landscape recalls Copland's third symphony while the hurtling towards home in the finale reminds me of Sibelius's Lemminkainen's Return.
The references to the naive and sentimental are not too helpful though the opening and recurrent guitar strumming theme is meant to symbolise the naive confronted by the huge forces of the sentimental, "thinking" music that follows. There is a great sense of epic and shifting landscape in the outer movements with both unleashing huge forces, not unlike Birtwhistle's "Earth Dances", of which there appears to be a conscious reference in the opening movement.
The three movements contain some of Adams' most harmonically challenging music and dissonance but amounts to a satisfying and cohesive symphonic whole. It is not the place to visit if you prefer the lighter dance works of John Admas, this is very serious music indeed.
As Mr Kimber pointed out, the slow movement refers to Busoni's Berceuse, a work, he also provided an orchestrated version of. I am not sure I agree about the link to Messiaen though wouldn't deny its huge expressive power. I do not think there is anything of the mystic and religious grandeur that you would expect from Messiaen. This work belongs with Copland, Sibelius, Bruckner and, yes, the Birtwhistle of "Earth Dances" and Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. I mention all these as reference points but this is easily distinguished as the music of John Adams and no one else. As passionate as the music gets, I think there is a post modern narrative sitting behind it: ie like some of Alfred Schnittke's work (for example, his 5th Symphony), this is not the expression of personal feeling but a commentary on the expressive musical languages of the past - ie late romantic, early modern etc. Whether the expression is direct or indirect it still has enormous impact.
The recording under Esa-Pekka Salonen is first class and you can get no greater compliment to the work than that from Salonen himself, a highly accomplished composer for orchestra himself, has written several works heavily influenced by this one piece. Check out his works "Foreign Bodies" and "Wing on Wing" on Deutsche Grammaphon; if you like "Naive and Sentimental Music" then these will be right up your street.
Why then did I drop one star. Sorry, being a mean Yorkshireman, I don't like being charged full price for less than 45 minutes music. there's almost enough room to fit his other large scale orchestral work "Harmonielehre". that would make a great coupling because that too feels like a big symphony with late romantic references. If that doesn't fit then there is still plenty of room for some other substantial work. Even so, I saw this, and thought it was worth the risk of purchase in spite of its brevity. I've certainly not been disappointed. At its premiere this seemed to be one of Adams's greatest orchestral achievements and time hasn't changed that view. There are no alternative recordings - a pity, but faced with that choice, this is a highly recommended recording.