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John ADAMS (b. 1947)
Absolute Jest [25:15]
Naïve and Sentimental Music [45:57]
Doric String Quartet (Absolute Jest)
Sean Shibe (steel-string guitar: Naïve and Sentimental Music)
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Peter Oundjian
rec. 2017, Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow

Peter Oundjian has just bowed out as the RSNO’s Music Director, and he leaves this recording as his farewell gift to them. It’s a shrewd choice. I’ve often been critical of Oundjian in his live performances, but one area where he has done undeniably well is in American music, and his previous recordings of Gershwin and, especially, Adams, have been really successful.

This one is too. I first heard Absolute Jest when the San Francisco Symphony, for whom it was written, played it at the 2015 Edinburgh Festival (review). The first hearing left me rather cold, but a colleague told me I’d soften to it after a bit more exposure, and he was right. It’s effectively an extended Scherzo, but its quirk is that Adams uses the music of Beethoven as an inspiration, often quoting Beethoven directly and using it as a springboard for his own musical riffs. It also doubles as a concerto for orchestra and string quartet, and all the problems of balance that bothered me in the concert hall have been fixed triumphantly by the Chandos engineers here. They capture the tricky dynamic of string quartet and orchestra really well, giving just the right amount of prominence to the quartet without allowing them to dominate artificially, while also allowing the orchestra’s own sense of scale to be self-evident.
There’s an electric feeling of energy right from the work’s opening with its repeated galloping rhythm which the quartet both rides and becomes a part of. The jagged cross-rhythms sound fairly icy as the quartet bounce off the orchestra, invoking the rhythm of the Ninth Symphony’s scherzo, and the whole opening section felt, to me, a bit like a ballet score with its angular thrustings that melt into the Scherzo theme of the Fourth Symphony. It unfolds in one uninterrupted span (though Chandos have generously banded it in six separate tracks to coincide with its different sections) and it builds up a brilliant head of steam as it progresses, until a strangely beautiful interlude, led by the quartet, which contains elements of the Grosse Fuge. It’s dispelled by some skilfully blown raspberries from the horns, leading into a fairly frenzied coda which is one of Adams’ trademark studies in rapid motion centring on a rapid repeated rhythm. Some pile-driving brass chords punctuate the picture and give a sense of structure to what sometimes feels like descending entropy. It’s exhilararting to listen to, and must have been hair-raising to play. Finally, however, it trails off into an anti-climactic ending so self-consciously ironic that it feels like it’s cocking a snook. I’m still not sure I buy that, but once I stopped actively looking for the Beethoven references, I found myself enjoying Absolute Jest much more as a work in and of itself, and on that front it has a huge amount to recommend it. It’s fantastically played throughout, and driven by Oundjian in what must have been a pretty tricky score to pin down.

Naïve and Sentimenal Music is a larger scale composition and has a bigger idea around it. My colleague Leslie Wright explains it in detail here so I won’t replicate it. All I’ll say is that I found this performance of it highly convincing. The first theme, “naïve”, unfolds with disarming simplicity, wandering its way through the notes with almost childlike simplicity, moving from high winds through to winding violins over a simple accompaniment. It’s almost cinematic in its directness, and it gets blown astray with some jagged percussive interruptions around the six-minute mark. Adam’s trademark rhythmic chuggings don’t kick in until about nine minutes in, but when they do they inject some energy and power that kickstarts the orchestral to-and-fro, and this theme reminded me a little of City Noir in its exploratory busy-ness.

Adams plunges deep into sentimentality for his second movement, “Mother of the Man.” It’s inspired by Busoni’s Bereceuse élégiaque, a work Busoni wrote as a reflection of an adult at his mother’s grave. Adams’ response is a profoundly simple (“naively” simple, you might almost say) high violin melody, against which other instruments play what sounds like a set of slow, wandering improvisations. It’s fantastically beautiful and I found it very moving, especially the steel-string guitar of Sean Shibe, which sounds beautiful paired with the solo bassoon. It’s “sentimental” in its immersion in the emotions, but otherwise the simplicity of the movement and its gentle tone is a real winner. Shards of string sound interject to introduce a more troubled central section, but the mood of peace returns before the finale, “Chain to the Rhythm”, the third movement, introduces Adams’ trademark rhythmic adventurism, excitingly directed by Oundjian and brilliantly played by the RSNO’s laser-like string section and jaggedly percussive brass. They maintain impressive control even through the big, space-age climaxes, though the final chord leaves things hanging in the air in a way that, at first, I found rather unsatisfying; anti-climactic, almost?

The playing is very good throughout and, again, the clarity of the recorded sound is top notch. Every line feels present in the overall orchestral arc so there is individuality but also brilliant blend. I was listening only in 2.0 stereo, so I imagine it’s pretty stunning in SACD.

This is worthy to set alongside the RSNO’s previous Adams recordings, and is perhaps even more worthwhile because there is so little competition on disc for these two works. Definitely worth exploring.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: Leslie Wright


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