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 Recording of the Week  Michael Tilson Thomas conducts a new piece by John Adams

A new John Adams piece this week, with the premiere recording of his 2013 work for string quartet and orchestra, Absolute Jest, performed by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and St Lawrence String Quartet, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. Besides a handful of works by Schoenberg, Martinů, and a few others, there aren’t all that many pieces for this instrumental combination (Adams himself suggests that it’s “pretty much a repertory black hole”), partly because it's hard to balance the quartet against the full orchestra (Adams attempts to overcome this by asking that the string quartet be discreetly amplified in performance). On disc, of course, this is not so much of an issue, and I found that there was a pleasing presence to the solo string quartet without it seeming artificially loud.

John Adams
John Adams

It’s described as a “colossal twenty-five-minute scherzo”, and uses fragments of themes from various pieces by Beethoven, mainly the string quartets, opp. 131 and 135, and the Grosse Fuge. Although there is much more to the piece than just having a fun time playing Name that Tune, it is interesting to hear how he weaves the Beethoven snippets into the whole fabric. As well as the quartets, the first movement is infused with the famous dotted rhythm that begins not only the Scherzo of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony but also the Vivace of the first movement of the Seventh.

Adams has said that here the word jest indicates not so much a joke, but rather derives from the Latin word gesta, meaning a noble deed. So it’s not a comedy as such, although the piece as a whole fits very much into his cheeky, playful style. There were a few places in the first movement, particularly some of the dazzling woodwind writing, that reminded me of another of his pieces, Fearful Symmetries, and elsewhere some of the ascending horn lines seemed to hark back to an earlier, little-known work called El Dorado. Alongside some great orchestral playing, the St Lawrence String Quartet stand out as particularly impressive: the final Prestissimo movement sees a flurry of semiquavers, all despatched effortlessly, and they’re great at bringing out Adams’s often-quirkily angular melodic writing.

Also on the disc is a new recording of Grand Pianola Music, premiered by the San Francisco Symphony back in 1982, and here conducted by the composer. Apparently not terribly well received at its premiere (Adams notes that “the piece seems to have something to offend everybody”), it is now possibly one of his more popular works. Stylistically, it sounds to me, at least in the first movement with its long pulsating sequences over very slow-moving harmonies, much more like something by Steve Reich. In the two solo piano parts, Adams has talked about how he was trying to depict the idea of tape and digital delays, where a sound can be repeated in a fraction of a second. So, often the two pianists play essentially the same material but either a semiquaver or a quaver apart. This idea is aided immensely here by two pianists of the calibre of Marc-André Hamelin and Orli Shaham. The moment of arrival about ninety seconds into the final part (On the Dominant Divide), where the two pianos come crashing in with a cascade of arpeggios and broken chords, always makes me think of the opening of Beethoven's Emperor Piano Concerto, so it's apt that this should form the coupling for Absolute Jest.

Soon after comes the “big tune”, which in Adams's words was meant to be one that “seems like an oldie, the words for which no one can quite remember”. It's certainly annoyingly catchy (in a good way!) and leads the piece to a rousingly triumphant conclusion. It’s given a fantastic performance by all concerned, not least the wordless female vocal trio that Adams employs, and a terrifingly high but immaculately performed tuba solo in the slow movement. A great disc, then, for all Adams fans!

John Adams: Absolute Jest and Grand Pianola Music

Orli Shaham (piano) & Marc-André Hamelin (piano), Synergy Vocals, San Francisco Symphony & St. Lawrence String Quartet, Michael Tilson Thomas & John Adams

Available Formats: SACD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC