The RSNO (Royal Scottish National Orchestra) inaddition to their annual concert series and occasional tours, have been recording for many years, mostly in the realm of classical music. Here the orchestra are conducted by their former principle conductor the Canadian Peter Oundjian. With Oundjian and other conductors the orchestra have recorded many old favourites, some less well-known works, some film music and some 20th century classical music. John Adams' music belongs to that final category and to my knowledge this particular album may be the first by the RSNO dedicated solely to Adam' music. As a composer Adams is usually categorised as modern or experimental and most strongly associated with minimalism. However his minimalist style is not as pure and austere as some composers, and can be quite approachable with considerable variety in its instrumention and evolving shapes and textures providing an overall structure, rising and falling in the manner of traditional romantic music. This particular album lists Adams' "Naive and Sentimental Music" first (it being the longer work dating from 1998), but starts with the composer's shorter and more recently composed "Absolute Jest" of 2012.
"Absolute Jest" is scored for String Quartet and Orchestra, with the Doric String Quartet playing the featured quartet parts. And the Quartet is a key element of the music, since it contains quotes from a number of Beethoven's String Quartets, and some other pieces of Beethoven's. The first movement "Beginning" following a slightly mysterious opening, has other orchestral sections joining the initial piano and strings, before we become aware of a dotted rhythm like the scherzo of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. With plenty of repetition and near-repetition, this insistent motive evolves through other textures before morphing into a fragment of Beethoven's 4th and snatches of various Beethoven String Quartets and Piano Sonatas. The feel is definitely playful and the movement seems determined to be a crowd pleaser in a similar vein to Adams' "Short Ride in a Fast Machine".
The second movement "Presto" continues the playful mood on solo violin and strings, and we hear the timpani dotted rhythm again from the scherzo of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, and further Beethoven "sound bite" quotations sometimes overlapping. The movement segues seemlessly into the short "Lo stesso tempo" and the tempo slows down further for "Meno mosso" which is led by the String Quartet in a more pensive perhaps melancholy mood, until the brass blow a number of raspberries, which leads into the short "Vivacissimo" with its short lively figures and further quotations. This noisily leads into the final "Prestissimo". This is full of action with woodwind bird tweets, sawing strings, insistent brass and rhythmic percussion, as quotations and other figures pile up and interrupt each other. The whole thing seems to be heading to a fast noisy climax until Adams' final Jest: a quiet enigmatic ending! At which point it seems appropriate to comment on the quality of the recording. Its clarity is astounding - full of detail across the whole orchestra and Quartet, as though you are in the middle of the action - and this adds immensely to the listeners' enjoyment of the music. And this is listening in normal stereo CD format, since I don't have the facilities to appreciate the disc's full SACD capabilities.
The main work begins in the titular movement "Naïve and Sentimental Music" with solo oboe and piano, joined by other woodwind before the strings and other sections join in. The piano accompaniment continues with regular chords, while melodic interest flows on short melodic threads woven neatly together. The work continues in the same vein, getting more urgent with the melodic threads adopting different textures, but the character change is quite gradual so that it is hardly noticeable at first. Before long the orchestra is pleying tutti but not as one since the distinct threads are still present. The pace slackens and the texture thins into something more together. The music turns more urgent again but this time there is a distinct excited optimism, with woodwind fluttering and clapping timpani & percussion, the next tutti becomes more coherent and stravinskian in character. The pace calms down once more and the strings dominate, before a final flourish brings the movement to its conclusion.
"Mother of the Man" begins on gentle strings, before being joined by an acoustic guitar. This plays a beautifully soothing melody almost improvisational in feel with plenty of fret slides. Perhaps we should take the movement's title quite literally since the music's character exudes a gentle mothering, nurturing nature. All is not totally peaceful though. Some bells herald a change in tone with crescendoing strings and later brass notes, before a ringing return to calm and the guitar. Perhaps the middle section was simply mothering through difficult periods? "Chain to the Rhythm" starts with isolated notes over sustained chords as though raindrops presage a coming storm. And sure enough those isolated notes become short phrases as though the rain is getting heavier, and then the rhythm becomes more like a train journey complete with toots and whistles, then more intense as though perhaps the train is being battered by the storm. The train (or "Fast Machine" or whatever metaphor you prefer) passes through different scenery, both industrial and countryside, and you might be reminded of Benjamin Britten's music complementing the Auden poem at the end of the famous "Night Mail" documentary. The train finally grinds to a slow albeit noisy conclusion.
This album would be a splendid introduction to the music of John Adams, and a great library addition to anyone already familiar with his work. The RSNO under Peter Oundjian are on top of their game here, bringing out the sheer exuberance and occasional serenity of the music, and the recording is remarkable for its presence and clarity even under normal stereo playback conditions. Highly recommended! The album is available at these links: Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com.