This new recording on the San Francisco Symphony’s own label presents two works written three decades apart by American composer John Adams. Although Adams is most commonly associated with Minimalist compositional techniques, these are only very obliquely in evidence in this world premiere recording of Absolute Jest (2013

Most unusually, the work is scored for string quartet with symphony orchestra – “pretty much a repertory black hole,” as Adams notes dryly. This piece takes as its starting points phrases from late Beethoven string quartets, predominantly Op. 131, 135, and the Große Fuge (Op. 133), weaving them into “a colossal 25-minute scherzo” with orchestral elaborations, digressions and counterpoints, and nods to other Beethoven works.

“Absolute Jest is playful, in the literal sense of scherzo as joke, but it is by no means lightweight” 

It’s hugely playful, in the literal sense of scherzo as joke/jest, but it is by no means lightweight, flippant or ironic. Rather, it’s a vivacious, lively homage, a recent example in a long line of composers (including Brahms and Stravinsky, to name but two) looking back and ‘sampling’ the work of their forebears in order to create new and exciting compositions. 

Absolute Jest is paired here with a much earlier work, Grand Pianola Music (1982), which also owes a debt to Beethoven (particularly the Emperor Concerto) and requires two pianists for its grand, sweeping arpeggios. Its opening mechanical breathy woodwinds and four-on-the-floor rhythms immediately place Grand Pianola Music in the Minimalist tradition, building in intensity through gradual developmental change. 


The calliope-like wordless vocal parts combine eerily, and when paired with the relentless propulsive rhythms can’t help but conjure up images of steamboats and trains with their accompanying whistles. By the final movement, however, this work has moved on somewhere else entirely – exploding climactic brass segueing into rippling textural explorations of piano and woodwind, at once warm and mysterious. The grand finale, as Adams puts it, “rocks back and forth between tonic and dominant, yielding up a tune that seems like an ‘oldie,’ the
words for which no one can quite remember.” 

This produces a most extraordinary sensation, simultaneously disconcerting and bizarrely familiar, plonking the listener into a musical landscape that could conceivably be bordered by Appalachian Spring and Steve Reich’s Different Trains. This live recording of Grand Pianola Music is conducted by Adams himself, and was received enthusiastically by its audience earlier this year. Furthermore, the sound quality of this Super Audio CD is magnificently expansive: crisp, spacious and crystalline.

Tilson Thomas on Adams

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