I hadn't intended to go to the third concert in John Adams's mini-residency with the London Symphony Orchestra, though I'd certainly been bowled over by the first two (review of no.1 here on The Arts Desk). Rare as the programming looked, Copland's Appalachian Spring is one of those pieces to whose charm I'm deaf - diatonicism taken to artificial extremes? - and Elliott Carter remains anathema to me ('how can you be so hard-hearted?' said my concert companion Hen, 'the poor guy died last year'. That was before she heard his Variations for Orchestra).
It was the Adams piece on the programme that I knew I had to hear after the St Lawrence String Quartet's absolutely stunning performance of his String Quartet on Thursday at LSO St Luke's, where the above photo was taken by Kevin Leighton. I need much more time to get to grips with that complex work, probably a masterpiece.
They were very much at the centre of Absolute Jest, first performed last year with Adams's buddy of 30 years Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. I think, then, this must have been the UK or even the European premiere, but there was no fanfare about it.
I'm not sure what connection the title has with the novel Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace - though I'm attracted to the book from what I've just read about it, to be sure. What's certain is that this has to be one of music's biggest ever scherzos at around 25 minutes. It begins with the pounding dactyls of Beethoven's Scherzo in his Ninth Symphony, which the orchestra takes to semi-minimalist extremes. But the real subjects are the scherzos of late quartets Op. 131 - that weirdest of chatterboxes - and 135, with its manic repetitions.
It was Adams's idea, presumably, to preface his performance by getting the St Lawrences to play the passages in question, along with the slow fugal introduction to Op. 131 which finds itself interlaced with snatches of the Grosse Fuge in a much-needed if hardly easy slackening of all the frantic activity.
Others like my colleague Alexandra on The Arts Desk have raised the question of whether it's a good idea to submit to your own style the music of a giant. After all, most of Stravinsky's stylisations including Pulcinella, a performance of which was one of Adams's inspirations, are based on lesser composers or lesser music. And co-opting one of the supreme masters is different from finding your own music lined up in a concert programme with Beethoven or Brahms (what Adams charmingly calls 'sharing a bed with the big boys'). Well, I bought Absolute Jest for as long as it lasted, in colour and motion the work of a master. The wind-up from the central section was as accomplished as any of Adams's great transitions, and there was a sequence for the quartet players just before the end that absolutely knocked me for six.
This may be where, I later learnt from Tom May's SFSO note as reproduced on JA's compelling if fitful blog Hell Mouth, the composer references the 'Waldstein' Sonata's opening - you can see how exciting that must have been for Adams in his early almost-minimalist phase. One good result is that Adams has turned me back to the late Beethoven quartets, with which I've always struggled, and I begin to hear them more clearly.
More details about Absolute Jest in Adams's four-minute talk filmed by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra last year. Good to see he didn't repeat much of this on Sunday.
I can't see that Absolute Jest strikes out for deeper waters and more poignant climes as the first concert persuaded me again that Harmonielehre does, at least in its first movement.
But it is, after all, a scherzo, and Adams's concert sequence had given us a much less approachable Big Boy earlier. As Carter's Variations began their perplexing journey, I could admire the remarkable orchestration even as I resigned myself to not being able to detect the theme the variations were supposed to be tracing. But, like the composer himself in a grisly evening I once experienced of his string quartets where he talked and talked, the piece does go on. And the Neo-Gothic, brass-heavy peroration suffers from a bad case of elephantiasis. Adams writes superbly about his ambivalence towards Carter, and his acquaintance with Copland, too, on the above-mentioned blog, Hell Mouth.
Appalachian Spring passed swiftly and with lively string playing, but the real dazzler was Ives's Country Band March later incorporated into Three Places in New England, a knockout curtain-raiser if ever there was one. And three cheers once again to Adams for three superbly designed concerts. I'm now looking forward to The Gospel According to the Other Mary at the Barbican in March, though reports from the Los Angeles premiere have been very mixed.
Back to Bach as promised, and a cantata for Septuagesima which has nothing to do with either of the Gospel readings for the day, one of which is the parable of the workers in the vineyard (as supposedly depicted by Rembrandt above). 'Ich hab in Gottes Herz und Sinn', BWV 92 (1725, Leipzig again) is more preoccupied with the rough seas, winds and eathquakes God sends to test mankind. It's another of those 'total submission to God's will' texts which don't bear too much examination by agnostics like me. But what invention there is here, as usual.
The chorale that runs through the cantata begins in the sopranos against independent lines from strings and two oboes d'amore, especially winsome in thirds that take some unexpected turns. It punctuates the bass's recitative, where the continuo goes darting and plunging off to imitate the 'cracking and fearful crashing' of mountains and the 'great waters' (an excuse for introducing a stormy seascape by Ludolf Bakhuizen below). The turbulence is sustained in whiplash strings forcing an equally strenuous line from the tenor in his aria.
The bass's comparable number dealing with rough winds, this time in the shape of continuo only, sounded unduly blustery in bass Dominik Wörner's singing for Masaaki Suzuki; I'm sure there are more convincing ways of performing it. But the soprano's calm pastoral after all these elemental surges is a winner, and quite unlike any other Bach aria I know, the vocal line dancing with a solo oboe d'amore against the most delicate pizzicato strings. After the plain sailing of BWV 72 on Sunday, this was a total treat - and rather militates against the 'short cantatas to help choir beat winter cold' theory since it's half an hour long. 13/3 I'm replacing my original YouTube Leonhardt with the superb Koopman, above all because on it is our (re)New(ed) Best Friend Debbie York, who's been to stay as a result of Facebook re-contact with J, her old fellow Glyndebourne chorus pal (and Queen of Spades dance partner). And magic she makes indeed of one of Bach's loveliest arias (around 24'20).