Jesting Or Grand, Adams Provides Delight On Disc

John Adams takes to the San Francisco Symphony podium to conduct his 'Grand Pianola Music.'
John Adams takes to the San Francisco Symphony podium to conduct his ‘Grand Pianola Music.’

John Adams: Absolute Jest (first recording), Grand Pianola Music. Orli Shaham, Marc-André Hamelin (pianos), Synergy (vocals), St. Lawrence String Quartet, San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, John Adams (conductors). SFS Media 0063, SACD

By Richard S. Ginell

DIGITAL REVIEW — Since its gigantic Mahler Project was finished, the San Francisco Symphony’s SFS Media label has been mostly moving on two parallel paths — one devoted to American Mavericks, the other to Beethoven (a maverick himself, you might say). This album combines both directions in one release, for these pieces from opposite ends of John Adams’ career take their cues from Beethoven and send his music in very different directions.

AdamsZest cover 350Adams might want to play word games by insisting that “Jest” in Absolute Jest is derived from the Latin “gesta” — or deed — but he also calls the piece a “colossal scherzo,” and scherzo means joke. Really, Absolute Jest leans heavily in the latter direction, and so much the better, for it is a delightful bit of jesting, taking passages from some of Beethoven’s most energizing music — in particular, the Fourth, Seventh, and Ninth Symphonies, Grosse Fuge and String Quartets Ops. 131 and 135 — and routing them through Adams’ sophisticated processes. Up front, Adams placed a string quartet —  in this case, his advocates in the St. Lawrence String Quartet, who go to town in the crazy borderline-hysteria dance in the center of the second movement of Op. 135.

This recording of Absolute Jest, made in May 2013, contains the revised version in which Adams completely rewrote the first two-fifths of the piece to make it less “pedantic.” As it stands in this form, it is one of his best pieces, a loving homage to Beethoven. Still, Adams the trickster is never out of the picture as we laugh at the familiar musical signposts and ponder how Adams weaves them into his complex modernist fabric.

Grand Pianola Music, on the other hand, has been considered an homage by some who take it literally, an outrage by the dedicated avant-garde, or a send-up of Beethoven, minimalism, piano concertos, movie music (the siren-like female chorus provided here by Synergy Vocals), and other conventions by the irreverent young Adams. The New York premiere in 1983 nearly provoked a riot; it seemed like half of the crowd in Avery Fisher Hall was on its feet cheering and the other half was booing. Adams came onstage in a buckskin jacket for the curtain call, and his response to the tumult was a shrug. It was a genuine succès de scandale, and he must have known it.

More than three decades later, the piece doesn’t raise many hackles or guffaws; even that Big Tune in the third movement (“On the Dominant Divide”) no longer seems as gleefully vulgar as it once did. It ranks on the timeline as one last Adams burst of minimalism; he had exhausted the idea and was pushing on to grander things, so he had a little fun with it on the way out.

Adams headshot 350
The San Francisco Symphony plays two works by John Adams.

Michael Tilson Thomas leads a zesty performance of Absolute Jest. For Grand Pianola Music, he passes the baton to Adams, who had already made a recording of the piece with the London Sinfonietta for Nonesuch. With Orli Shaham and Marc-André Hamelin rippling away on twin pianos, Adams’ second recording adopts pretty much the same tempos as the first, save for a slightly slower third movement. Yet it sounds more settled, more of a reflection on the composer’s flaming youth — and not quite as much fun.

Still, this is as canny a coupling of related works by a single composer as one could imagine, and the sound, as usual with audiophile-minded SFS Media, is excellent.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.