Michael Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony, John Adams: Absolute Jest, Grand Pianola Music - album review

Download: Absolute Jest; Grand Pianola Music

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John Adams’ ongoing relationship with the San Francisco Symphony is celebrated in this pairing of “Grand Pianola Music” with the more recent “Absolute Jest”, for orchestra and string quartet.

The blend of Reichian pianos and vocal susurrus with assertive brass lends the earlier piece a brashly American character. “Absolute Jest”, by contrast, reflects more European influences: Adams adapts fragments of Beethoven, creating effectively an extended scherzo which furnishes the musical jest of the title.

The orchestra’s ostinatos initially seem to hinder the string quartet’s nimble interplay, but by the end of the opening section, the quartet seems suddenly freed, dancing gaily into the subsequent Presto. It’s this lightness of spirit with which Adams evokes the scherzo, establishing an ebullient charm which continues through to the concluding “Prestissimo”.