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John ADAMS (b. 1947)
Absolute Jest (2011, rev. 2012) [25:15]
Naive and Sentimental Music (1997-98) [45:57]
Sean Shibe (steel-string guitar) (Naive and Sentimental Music)
Doric String Quartet: Alex Redington (violin); Jonathan Stone (violin); Hélène Clément (viola); John Myerscough (cello) (Absolute Jest)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Peter Oundjian
rec. Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, 2017

The timing of this new John Adams release could be thought unfortunate, as it comes out at the same time as Leila Josefowicz’s blistering account of the Adams Violin Concerto with the St. Louis Symphony under David Robertson (Nonesuch) and not all that long after the Berlin Philharmonic’s lavish John Adams Edition. The good news, though, is that there is no duplication of works here and these performances can hold their own against the competition.

Absolute Jest, one of Adams’s more recent compositions, has divided critics. Some see the work as an enjoyable, jolly romp—a large scherzo, as apparently the composer intended—and others as a weaker piece that wears out its welcome rather quickly. I must say at this point I have found much to enjoy in the work and have had at the least great fun in identifying (or attempting to identify) all of the references to Beethoven, from the Seventh Symphony and the scherzos of the Fourth and Ninth symphonies to his late quartets—with the Op.135 dominating. Adams composed Absolute Jest for the San Francisco Symphony’s centenary, and Michael Tilson Thomas recorded it with his orchestra in 2015. Adams conceived the work after hearing Tilson Thomas conduct the suite from Stravinsky’s Pulcinella where the composer “modernized” there was Pergolesi. Absolute Jest, though, also reminds me of the kind of compositions Luciano Berio produced, which he based on music of earlier composers. Adams was dissatisfied with the piece after its premiere and so revised it by composing a completely different first movement. The work is scored for large orchestra to which he adds an amplified string quartet.

Absolute Jest has received one prior recording by its dedicatees, the San Francisco Symphony under Tilson Thomas and the St. Lawrence String Quartet. That account may be considered authoritative, but this new one is every bit as good. The main difference, I find, is in the sound where the bass is emphasized more in the earlier recording. Here everything seems lighter and the considerable use of the higher percussion, e.g., bells and chimes, is more audible.
At times the string quartet seems closer and more distinct from the rest of the orchestra. The Doric String Quartet are really superb in their role, as the St. Lawrence were before. The work is divided into six movements which play without breaks. In the last of these, the Scottish orchestra outdo themselves. Their performance is tremendously exciting, more so than their San Francisco counterparts. The elusive “surprise” ending with its employment of piano, cowbells, and harp is especially effective in this new account.

Naive and Sentimental Music is one of Adams’s most important orchestral scores, which in its form resembles his earlier masterpiece, Harmonielehre. Where there are more than a few vestiges of his brand of minimalism present in that work, here he has moved on and only in the last of the three movements are there some of the rhythmic elements reminiscent of his earlier style. The title of the composition is taken from an essay by the German poet Friedrich Schiller, “Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung,” published in 1795. According to Adams, he contrasts his own “natural and spontaneous gesture” with his “painfully acute self-awareness” of the near impossibility to create truly “naive” art in our “ferociously art-historical and self-conscious times.” The first movement is based on a haunting but simple, “naive” melody, frequently accompanied by guitar, harps, and piano, while the second movement, “Mother of the Man,” is a kind of lullaby with a significant part for the steel-string guitar, beautifully played here by Sean Shibe. This movement was inspired by Busoni’s Berceuse élégiaque that depicts an adult singing a lullaby by his mother’s coffin. The final movement, “Chain to the Rhythm,” brings the work to a dynamic, post-minimalist conclusion.

It seems odd to me that the only other recording of Naive and Sentimental Music is by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Esa-Pekka Salonen (Nonesuch), for whom Adams composed the work. One would expect this composition to have achieved popularity similar to that of Harmonielehre. Salonen’s is a stunning performance that packs a real wallop with tremendous bass response. While Oundjian’s may seem less powerful in the bass register, it compensates by bringing out subtleties in the scoring not as apparent in the earlier account. This is especially true of the bell and mallet percussion and in general of the higher frequencies. The recording also has a clearer front-to-back perspective which is likely emphasized even more in surround sound playback. I listened to the SACD in the normal two channels and was very impressed with the recording. This disc in no way supplants the Salonen, except for the much more generous timing—the latter occupies a whole CD to itself—but complements it well.

Chandos contributes its usual first-class product with a photo-filled booklet with informative notes on the works by Mervyn Cooke and biographical information on the artists, given in English, German, and French. In every way, this is a worthy addition to the growing John Adams discography.

Leslie Wright

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