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John ADAMS (b. 1947)
Absolute Jest (2012) [25.40]
Saint Lawrence String Quartet,
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas
Grand Pianola Music (1982) [31.54]
Synergy Vocals: Micaela Haslam (soprano), Joanna Forbes L’Estrange (soprano), Heather Cairncross (alto),
Orli Shaham (piano), Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra/John Adams
rec. live May 2013 (Absolute Jest); January 2015 (Grand Pianola Music); Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, USA
SFS MEDIA SACD SFS0063 [57.34]

Is there really thirty years between Absolute Jest and Grand Pianola Music the John Adams pairing on this own label SFS Media release? Feeling new and freshly minted Grand Pianola Music was written in 1982 when ‘minimalism’ was well established with Philip Glass and Steve Reich notable exponents. On the other hand Absolute Jest, a commission from the San Francisco Symphony, is one of Adams’ most recent works. I’m glad this album arrived when it did as in just over a week I plan to attend the Musikfest Berlin for the German première of Absolute Jest played by the Saint Lawrence String Quartet and San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas at the Philharmonie.

Adams is the acceptable face of minimalism, a medium he was drawn to. He says that he has “never abandoned tonal harmony” and grew up as a jazz and rock fan: “I could never imagine a music that didn’t have beat.” But Adams found his own successful brand of composition, by fusing traditional music heritage with minimalism, which was dramatic with the ability to affect the listener rather than being cold and emotionally inert.

Adams describes Absolute Jest for string quartet and orchestra as “a colossal twenty-five minute Scherzo.” In 2012 Adams was inspired by Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony in Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, a piece that reworks themes by eighteenth-century Italian composers (thought at one time to be by Pergolesi). In Absolute Jest Adams uses his love of Beethoven string quartets by taking and cleverly developing material from the Scherzos of the String Quartets, Op. 131, 135 and the Große Fuge, together with the Seventh and Ninth Symphonies and ‘WaldsteinSonata. Adams has chosen to employ a string quartet with a symphony orchestra, a rarely encountered combination. After its première in March 2012 Adams, not completely satisfied, decided to revise the score, writing a completely new opening. In December the same year he conducted the revised score with the St. Lawrence String Quartet and New World Symphony at Miami Beach, Florida. Specifically Adams’ instrumentation requires the string quartet to be slightly amplified together with winds, percussion, celesta, strings and specially tuned piano and harp. Here the Saint Lawrence and the San Francisco Symphony under Tilson Thomas give a special performance of this captivating work. In writing that bristles with infectious ideas the striking playing has unquenchable, vital rhythmic energy yet remains stylishly unified. Opening with a shimmering atmospheric character Adams’s music sounds rather like the soundtrack to a Hitchcock thriller. Overall it is the propulsive forward momentum, unrelenting and vigorous that is the most remarkable aspect of the writing. Most of the Beethoven quotations reworked by Adams should be recognisable with the motto from the Scherzo of the String Quartet, Op. 135 coming across as the most prominent. Throughout I had little problem hearing the string quartet amid the sound of the orchestra.

The inspiration for Adams’ Grand Pianola Music came from a dream in which he was driving down Interstate Route 5 and saw two black stretch-limousines metamorphose into stretch Steinway pianos. Speeding down the highway the limos emitted a barrage of “B flat and E flat major arpeggios.” Grand Pianola Music is unconventionally scored for two pianos, wind, percussion and three amplified female voices (two sopranos and a mezzo). At its introduction in 1982 at a New York contemporary music festival by the San Francisco Symphony under Jacob Druckman the work was given a mixed reception and received some booing from the audience. Adams enjoyed writing the piece and provides some revealing background “it could only have been conceived by someone who had grown up surrounded by the detritus of mid-twentieth century recorded music. Beethoven and Rachmaninoff soak in the same warm bath with Liberace, Wagner, the Supremes, Charles Ives, and John Philip Sousa.” Adams designed the work in two parts with the substantial first part being essentially two movements fused. In part two Adams refers to a section in his writing that reminds him of the opening to Beethoven’s ‘EmperorPiano Concerto. Adams’ rather whimsical, eclectic mix of styles includes Sousa-like marches to Christian revivalist anthems. Notable is Synergy Vocals, the trio of female voices (described by Adams as sirens), singing a wordless harmony and a rather scat-like vocal. In addition the pair of pianos play basically the same music with one piano slightly leading the other, generally “a sixteenth or an eighth note apart.” Under the composer’s baton the San Francisco Symphony maintain the necessary rhythmic vitality which is both absorbing and challengingly difficult. Right from the opening bars the writing pulsates relentlessly forward in near-hypnotic results. Significantly adding to the overall effect of the piece is Synergy Vocals as ‘the sirens’ with their ethereal wordless harmonies. Radically altering the mood in the second section of part one is a series of six climaxes incorporating aggressive drum strikes that feel like electric shocks. Later in the movement we encounter quite outstanding tuba playing over cascading piano writing played with precision by Orli Shaham and Marc-André Hamelin. Part two titled ‘On the Dominant Divide’ is equally dazzling for its rolling and unremitting forward momentum.

Recorded live at the Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco in 2013 (Absolute Jest) and 2015 (Grand Pianola Music) on this hybrid SACD played on my standard unit the engineering team have done well indeed, providing vividly clear and nicely balanced sonics. Applause has been kept on Grand Pianola Music but taken off Absolute Jest. Marvellously played and recorded this CD will unquestionably appeal to a much wider audience than John Adams devotees. This stunning album is a cast-iron certainty to be one of my Records of the Year.
Michael Cookson



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