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Saturday, August 12, 2017

John Adams - Absolute Jest; Grand Pianola Music (Michael Tilson Thomas; John Adams)


Composer: John Adams
  1. Absolute Jest: Beginning
  2. Absolute Jest: Presto
  3. Absolute Jest: Lo stesso tempo
  4. Absolute Jest: Meno mosso
  5. Absolute Jest: Vivacissimo
  6. Absolute Jest: Prestissimo
  7. Grand Pianola Music: Part 1
  8. Grand Pianola Music: Part 1 - Slow
  9. Grand Pianola Music: Part 2, On the Dominant Divide

St Lawrence String Quartet (1-6)
Geoff Nuttall & Scott St. John, violins
Lesley Robertson, viola
Christopher Costanza, cello

Orli Shaham & Marc-André Hamelin, pianos (7-9)
Micaela Haslam & Joanna Forbes L’Estrange, sopranos (7-9)
Heather Cairncross, alto (7-9)

San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor (1-6)
John Adams, conductor (7-9)

Date: 2015
Label: SFS Media



Three decades separate John Adams’s Absolute Jest from his Grand Pianola Music, the two works sharing a preoccupation with Beethoven’s place in the modern world and with unusually constituted ensembles. The combination of string quartet with orchestra allows Adams access all areas to the instrumental materials Beethoven gravitated towards during his later period; Absolute Jest, he tells us, is a colossal 25‑minute scherzo celebrating Beethoven’s ‘energy and feeling’ – rebutting what he describes as the ‘coldness’ of modernism.

Grand Pianola Music, too, is an exuberant, larger-than-life freefall through musical history, the off-the-leash arpeggios typical of Beethoven’s late piano sonatas bumping into Liszt then, controversially, ending up glittering like Liberace’s candelabra. Adams’s naughtiest piece has been well documented on record. His own 1994 recording with the London Sinfonietta played the notes; the Netherlands Wind Ensemble under Stephen Mosko ran more convincingly amok with its Rik Mayall two-finger salute-waving mischief. And so it’s good to have this second view from Adams himself. Tempi are pretty consistent with his earlier recording, although the finale takes slightly longer over flooding our senses with arpeggios. Orli Shaham and Marc-André Hamelin play with brute, cartoon-like reverie, and the slightly brash, grainy recording helps nail Adams’s central conceit: that this brass-heavy ensemble is slamming headfirst into the slow-paced minimalist opening. Sousa meets Glass. Late-19th-century arpeggios shake hands with their long-lost 1970s relatives.

Beethoven, as he re-emerges in Absolute Jest, is less of a waggish caricature. The nervy rhythmic tick of the Ninth Symphony’s Scherzo, forever looping and punctuating, frames the opening section. But Adams’s reluctance to internalise this reference as raw compositional material reduces Beethoven to a soundbite – which ends up being photo-bombed by the Seventh Symphony. Mashed-up fugue themes from the Grosse Fuge and Op 131 lead to a finale that transforms the radiant opening chord progression of the Waldstein Sonata into a funk stampede.

The piece is an entertaining diversion and the San Francisco SO respond winningly to Adams’s tailor-made if, at times, disappointingly generic orchestration. But Beethoven’s rugged individualism ultimately resists this gentrified re-imagining; the younger, bolder Adams, who dealt equitably with the apparent embarrassment of polluting the rarefied world of process music, is missed.

-- Philip Clark, Gramophone

More reviews:
MusicWeb International  RECORDING OF THE MONTH


John Adams (born February 15, 1947 in Worcester, Massachusetts) is an American composer of classical music and opera. He studied composition under Leon Kirchner, Roger Sessions, Earl Kim, and David Del Tredici. The music of John Adams is usually categorized as minimalist or post-minimalist, although in interview he has categorized himself as a 'post-style' composer. His works include Harmonielehre (1985), Short Ride in a Fast Machine (1986), On the Transmigration of Souls (2002) and Shaker Loops (1978). His operas include Nixon in China (1987), The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) and Doctor Atomic (2005).


Michael Tilson Thomas (born December 21, 1944) is an American conductor, pianist and composer. He studied piano with John Crown, composition and conducting under Ingolf Dahl. As a student of Friedelind Wagner, Tilson Thomas was a Musical Assistant and Assistant Conductor at the Bayreuth Festival. He is currently music director of the San Francisco Symphony (since 1995), and artistic director of the New World Symphony Orchestra (which he founded in 1987). He was also the principal conductor of the London Symphony from 1988 to 1995, and since 1995, held the title of principal guest conductor.


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