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Adams: Absolute Jest, Grand Pianola Music - Tilson Thomas, Adams

Adams: Absolute Jest, Grand Pianola Music - Tilson Thomas, Adams

San Francisco Symphony  SFS 0063

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Adams: Absolute Jest; Grand Pianola Music*

St Lawrence Quartet
Orli Shaham* & Marc-André Hamelin*, pianos
Synergy Vocals*
San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas
John Adams*


Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony join forces with America’s most-performed living composer, John Adams, in a colossal album featuring Adams’ Absolute Jest and Grand Pianola Music. Hear Adams’ inspired and witty take on Beethoven’s spirited scherzos in this first-ever recording of his SFS-commissioned Absolute Jest. Also featured is Grand Pianola Music, with its tongue-in-cheek allusions to Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, written for and premiered by the SFS. Both works speak to the deeply personal and vital relationship of some of the top musicians of our time: John Adams, MTT, and the San Francisco Symphony.

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Review by John Broggio - September 6, 2015

In common with Adams: Harmonielehre, Short Ride in a Fast Machine - Michael Tilson Thomas, this is an essential purchase for all admirers of John Adams.

Absolute Jest is Adams' wry take on Beethoven in the form a gigantic, near 30 minute, scherzo in which (to quote Adams) '... I take fragments of Beethoven's music and subject them to my own peculiar developmental techniques, some of which I've derived over years of using "radicalizing" musical software." For lovers of Beethoven it is entertaining to try and pick out the source material that inspired each section: snippets from string quartets and symphonies are immediately identifiable in the first two sections for instance. The effect is like an inverted reworking of the central movement of Berio's Sinfonia [rather than singular excerpts of multiple composers, here there are multiple excerpts of a singular composer].

Absolute Jest is just one of many compositions commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony and this concerto for string quartet and orchestra is unusual in its textures - it has to be for such a combination to be audible above (or perhaps more accurately, around) such large forces. At times, this music sounds very difficult for both the soloists and orchestra - even here, at the first performances of the revised version, all are remarkably assured and everyone is audibly committed to this work: all of those concerned (St. Lawrence String Quartet, SFS & MTT) are clearly inspired by this work & convey their love for the work to the listener with missionary zeal. As with the best performances and compositions of Adams, the more one listens, the clearer the internal logic and structures become; the ending is just brilliant and quite pulls the rug from underneath the feet of the listener - stunningly well executed here.

Grand Pianola Music is much more familiar to followers of Adams' art & we are treated to him taking up the baton for this performance. Compared to the version he recorded with members of London Sinfonietta, this has starrier names for the pianists (Orli Shaham & Marc-Andre Hamelin) and this, like Absolute Jest, is a recording taken from concert performances. It is the provenance of the recording that is key for there is musical risk-taking and point-making of another level compared to Adams' earlier account; the final coda is white-hot with excitement as Adams highlights detail upon detail whilst keeping these within the overall structure.

Synergy Vocals are just as assured as their keyboard playing colleagues and the San Francisco Symphony players (excepting strings, not used by Adams in this piece) all respond with verve. But it's not all about bravura displays as the, allotted a separate track, "Part 1 - Slow" illustrates, neatly giving lie to the canard that minimalism cannot be expressive. The same is true for huge sweep that is invoked in "Part 2 - On the Dominant Divide" that builds into a exultant conclusion.

The recordings, both deriving from concert performances, are huge leap forwards compared to Adams' earlier accounts for Nonesuch (good though they were) in terms of dynamic range, fidelity to timbres and impact. The audience is almost completely silence until they greet the conclusion of Grand Pianola Music with deserved acclaim (even the most trigger happy will fail to keep the applause silenced - please don't stop this letting you such an invigorating performance of a modern classic). Added to which, there is a note from Adams about the compositions alongside more extensive ones supplied by the label.

Brilliant from start to finish - I hope that this reexamination of Adams' output continues.

Copyright © 2015 John Broggio and HRAudio.net

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Comment by Euell Neverno - September 12, 2015 (1 of 1)

I enjoyed the comments of Philip Clark in Grammophone concerning "Absolute Jest":

"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 reluctance to internalize this reference as raw compositional material reduces Beethoven to a sound bite -- which ends up being phot-bombed by the Seventh Symphony. Mashed up fugue themes from the Grosse Fugue and Op 131 leads 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 as Adams' tailor-made, if at times disappointingly generic orchestration. But, Beethoven's rugged individualism ultimately resists the gentrified re-imagining; the younger, bolder Adams, who dealt equitably with the apparent embarrassment of polluting the rarified world of process music, is missed."

Oh, dear, faint praise if that, I'm afraid.