Not presumably by accident the appearance of this release coincides with the conductor’s final concerts as RSNO music director. John Adams is a composer Peter Oundjian has championed extensively during his tenure and for anyone seeking these particular works in physical format, the present coupling has the considerable asset of being more generous than its rivals. There is however a problem in that those alternatives were made by the musicians for whom the scores were composed. It’s a moot point how much alternative interpretation such essentially motoric pieces can stand. One’s ear is more likely to register the fact that the enthusiastic participants here are less svelte and sophisticated than their flusher West Coat counterparts. The sound is very good if not quite state-of -the art.
I wonder how many readers will concur in regarding the more recent output of this composer as impressively fluent rather than consistently inspired. Michael Tilson Thomas’s recording of Absolute Jest (2011, revised 2012) tends to emphasise that by pairing it with an Adams-directed account of Grand Pianola Music which broke new ground in the early 1980s. Combining frank tonality, cheeky borrowings from Beethoven and what seemed at the time an unabashed vulgarity, Pianola’s sheer audaciousness has been replaced by proficiency, but perhaps you’ll find the garrulous romp that is Absolute Jest less jerky and more joyous than I do. The Doric String Quartet and Oundjian’s team throw caution to the winds in the final Prestissimo, more so than the version under MTT. For me there’s more music in the cultivated civilities of mid-century American neo-classicists like Harold Shapero. While Adams’s string quartet has to be miked-up discreetly in live performance, no such problems are audible on disc.
Next Oundjian offers the more familiar Naive and Sentimental Music (1997-98), dedicated to Esa-Pekka Salonen, whose Los Angeles recording on Nonesuch is presented rather meanly without makeweight. Though his work as a conductor has very considerable strengths, Salonen has never been at his best in romantic or jazzy fare and I recall feeling that his reading could have conjured more atmosphere from the calm of the second movement just as it needed a more blatant swagger in the final ‘Change to the Rhythm’. Oundjian is if anything less propulsive there. Doubtless there’s nothing half-hearted about the playing (including Sean Shibe on steel-string guitar in ‘Mother of the Man’) and yet the music’s playful momentum is still a mite undersold, its dark glitter projected as if with slightly reduced wattage.
In terms of presentation, Chandos offers plenty of photos and a detailed note by Mervyn Cooke who attempts to unravel the paradoxical sweet/sour schizoid attitude of Absolute Jest without coming to any very definite conclusion. Fair enough. Only I’m not sure why Naïve and Sentimental Music gets priority billing on the booklet cover and pride of place in the note when Absolute Jest is placed first on the disc.
Admirers of John Adams’s music will be pleased but not, I think, ecstatic.