ADAMS Absolute Jest. Grand Pianola Music
Three decades separate John Adams’s <i>Absolute Jest</i> from his <i>Grand Pianola Music</i>, the two works sharing a preoccupation with Beethoven’s place in the modern world and with unusually constituted ensembles. The combination of string quartet with orchestra allows Adams access all areas to the instrumental materials Beethoven gravitated towards during his later period; <i>Absolute Jest,</i> he tells us, is a colossal 25‑minute scherzo celebrating Beethoven’s ‘energy and feeling’ – rebutting what he describes as the ‘coldness’ of modernism.</p>
<p><i>Grand Pianola Music</i>, too, is an exuberant, larger-than-life freefall through musical history, the off-the-leash arpeggios typical of Beethoven’s late piano sonatas bumping into Liszt then, controversially, ending up glittering like Liberace’s candelabra. Adams’s naughtiest piece has been well documented on record. His own 1994 recording with the London Sinfonietta played the notes; the Netherlands Wind Ensemble under Stephen Mosko ran more convincingly amok with its Rik Mayall two-finger salute-waving mischief. And so it’s good to have this second view from Adams himself. Tempi are pretty consistent with his earlier recording, although the finale takes slightly longer over flooding our senses with arpeggios. Orli Shaham and Marc-André Hamelin play with brute, cartoon-like reverie, and the slightly brash, grainy recording helps nail Adams’s central conceit: that this brass-heavy ensemble is slamming headfirst into the slow-paced minimalist opening. Sousa meets Glass. Late-19th-century arpeggios shake hands with their long-lost 1970s relatives. </p>
<p>Beethoven, as he re-emerges in <i>Absolute Jest</i>, is less of a waggish caricature. The nervy rhythmic tick of the Ninth Symphony’s <i>Scherzo</i>, forever looping and punctuating, frames the opening section. But Adams’s reluctance to internalise this reference as raw compositional material reduces Beethoven to a soundbite – which ends up being photo-bombed by the Seventh Symphony. Mashed-up fugue themes from the <i>Grosse Fuge </i>and Op 131 lead to a finale that transforms the radiant opening chord progression of the <i>Waldstein</i> Sonata into a funk stampede. </p>
<p>The piece is an entertaining diversion and the San Francisco SO respond winningly to Adams’s tailor-made if, at times, disappointingly generic orchestration. But Beethoven’s rugged individualism ultimately resists this gentrified re-imagining; the younger, bolder Adams, who dealt equitably with the apparent embarrassment of polluting the rarefied world of process music, is missed.