Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

LABELS: San Francisco Symphony
WORKS: Absolute Jest; Grand Pianola Music*
PERFORMER: Orli Shaham, Marc-André Hamelin (piano); St Lawrence String Quartet; San Francisco Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas, *John Adams
CATALOGUE NO: 21938-0063-2 (hybrid CD/SACD)


The title is adapted from Shakespeare’s Hamlet but the skull examined in John Adams’s Absolute Jest is that of Beethoven. Here is wit, rough passion, gravity and playfulness; motifs from the Ninth Symphony; gestures inspired by the Seventh Symphony; chord progressions from the Waldstein Piano Sonata; thematic cells from the Op. 131 String Quartet in C sharp minor and the Grosse Fugue. Pitching a string quartet against the hurly-burly of a symphony orchestra in an extended scherzo is, in Adams’s words, ‘a risky proposition’. But in this composite recording drawn from three live performances conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, the dialogue between the St Lawrence String Quartet and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra is brilliantly cogent and clear.

Absolute Jest is a bravura experiment that will delight Adams’s champions and appall his detractors. The energised suspensefulness of the first movement has been characteristic of his work since Shaker Loops. To a familiar orchestral palette of dewy tuned percussion, burbling arpeggiation and cheerful clarinet, he adds muscular trills for the horns and poignant chromaticism. Tilson Thomas keeps the balance clean and sweet. Only the prestissimo finale falls flat, its parting shot a little too casual.


Written more than 30 years earlier, Grand Pianola Music has lost none of its brawling energy, though the orchestra sounds tense under Adams’s direction, in a way that it seldom does under Tilson Thomas. Too much detail in Orli Shaham and Marc-André Hamelin’s pianism is lost to general swagger and the headachey glamour of the San Francisco brass section. In this context, Grand Pianola Music too sounds Beethovenian in spirit, albeit less pristine than in Adams’s earlier recording with London Sinfonietta (Nonesuch Records). Anna Picard