Adams - Absolute Jest, Naive and Sentimental Music
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Cat No: CHSA5199
Number of Discs: 1
Release Date: 4th May 2018
ArtistsSean Shibe (guitar)
Doric String Quartet
Royal Scottish National Orchestra
Written for a large orchestra including six percussionists, keyboard sampler, and amplified steel-string guitar, Naive and Sentimental Music is a sweepingly symphonic masterpiece, full of contrasts and clashes. It reflects the dichotomy between ‘naive’ and ‘sentimental’ poetry as analysed by Friedrich Schiller in his 1795 essay Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung, as well as the ‘bipolar’ musical life of Esa-Pekka Salonen, the dedicatee of this piece, who conducted the first performance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1999.
Absolute Jest is a large-scale scherzo for amplified string quartet and orchestra, heavily inspired by the music of Beethoven, which Adams has always deeply admired. The quartet of soloists, a late addition to the score, emphasises the echoes of Beethoven’s music (mainly his string quartets) and facilitates a ‘hyperspace rate’ of virtuosity, which the Doric String Quartet here perfectly demonstrates.
1Absolute Jest - I
2Absolute Jest - II
3Absolute Jest - III
4Absolute Jest - IV
5Absolute Jest - V
6Absolute Jest - VI
7Naive and Sentimental Music - I
8Naive and Sentimental Music - II
9Naive and Sentimental Music - III
Composed for the centenary of the San Francisco Symphony in 2011, Absolute Jest arose partly in response to a performance of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella suite, in which the Russian composer famously adapted the music of Pergolesi to a neoclassical idiom. Adams, however, turned to one of his lifelong musical loves, Beethoven, utilising motivic and rhythmic cells from the scherzos of the Ninth Symphony and the late quartets in particular to weave a fabulously intricate web of textures and polyphony in which the full orchestra sits alongside a lightly amplified string quartet (on this recording, the marvellous Doric String Quartet) in music of constantly shifting perspectives.
With Beethoven providing so many of the building blocks, there is plenty of rhythmic momentum, and listeners possessing no more than a basic familiarity with the late quartets will have a high old time catching snippets of familiar music as they move in and out of focus. Yet this is more than just a romp through deconstructed Beethoven. The score additionally calls for cowbells, as well as piano and harp tuned to the mean-tone scale often encountered in the works of Terry Riley, La Monte Young and Harry Partch. After the ebb and flow of the twenty-five-minute single-movement piece culminates in an extended pedal based on the opening harmony of the Waldstein Sonata, the music peters out, leaving just these archaic-sounding instruments ringing out enigmatically at the close. As Adams himself writes, ‘The “jest” of the title should be understood in terms of its Latin meaning, “gesta:” doings, deeds, exploits. I like to think of “jest” as indicating an exercising of one’s wit by means of imagination and invention.’
Just as inventive but very different in mood is the three-movement Naive and Sentimental Music, scored for large orchestra including five percussionists and a steel-stringed guitar. Once again, the title is deceptive. Adams takes as his point of departure Friedrich Schiller’s essay On Naive and Sentimental Poetry, in which Schiller suggests that poets fall into one of two categories: for ‘naïve’ poets the act of creation is a purely natural and simple one (examples include Homer, Shakespeare and Goethe), whereas ‘sentimental’ poets base their work on their own feelings and on conscious reflections on their subjects. For Adams, large-scale orchestral music (and this is one of his most ambitious non-operatic scores) is both sentimental and naïve, coming naturally and spontaneously to him but still requiring a certain reflectiveness as it engages with the traditions of the past.
The first movement is dominated by a ‘naïve’ cantilena-like melody that gradually takes on more reflective, self-aware qualities as it ‘leaves the nest and ventures out into the wide world like a Dickens child’. In the second movement (‘Mother of the Man’, inspired by Busoni’s Berceuse élégiaque of 1909, in which a grown man stands by his mother’s coffin), the sense of lost innocence is enhanced as the guitar soloist (here the excellent Sean Shibe) comes to the fore. The third and final movement, ‘Chain to the Rhythm’, has a toccata-like brilliance and momentum, with a vast array of percussion dominating the timbres. At forty-five minutes this is one of Adams’s most absorbing and accomplished works. Like Absolute Jest, it receives a thoroughly committed, urgent and persuasive performance from Oundjian and the RSNO, complemented by Chandos’s vivid SACD sound and fine booklet notes by Mervyn Cooke.
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