by Pwyll ap Siôn
Steve Reich’s music is often at its most effective when he writes for different combinations of percussion and/or piano, often set out symmetrically on stage in opposing pairs. This form of contemporary chamber music – unique in many ways to Reich – foregrounds some of its most important stylistic elements: rhythmic and melodic counterpoint; the combination and layering of interlocking patterns; and, most importantly, the dynamic interplay and subtle shifts in balance that are required collectively from the ensemble to best achieve these effects.
It is this last element that proves a stumbling block for some performances of Reich’s music. Third Coast Percussion get it absolutely right here. Consider, for example, the five-movement Sextet (1984) for percussion and keyboards, which has become something of a 1980s Reich classic. Third Coast take the first movement at a slightly steadier pace than the original recording by Steve Reich and Musicians (Nonesuch, 8/88) and certainly more slowly than Contempoartensemble under Danilo Grassi (Arts Music, 2002), who race through the opening chord cycle at such speed that the music’s rhythmic subtleties are largely lost.
Third Coast’s more considered approach allows them to dig deeper into Sextet’s dark, almost threatening undertow. A sense of urgency and immediacy is still maintained, however, and the transitions between each movement are well coordinated. The same level of care is evident in the more recent Mallet Quartet (2009) with imaginative blending of colours, dramatic dynamic thrusts and sudden contrasts especially evident during the work’s final movement. The intuitive rhythmic empathy between players that’s key in performing Reich’s music is also evident in the lighter Nagoya Marimbas (1994) and more radical, earlier Music for Pieces of Wood (1973) for five pairs of tuned claves. The recording itself would have benefited from a slightly more resonant acoustic but overall this is a really impressive Reich debut from Third Coast Percussion.