Three Takes on a Minimalist Pioneer

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by Allan Kozinn
July 4, 2016

Not so long ago, new recordings of Steve Reich’s music, while intended, on one level, for the enjoyment of the composer’s fans, were just as importantly in the business of documenting Mr. Reich’s evolving style. Most of the performances were by his own ensemble, Steve Reich and Musicians, or by the musicians who commissioned the works, usually with Mr. Reich supervising. It was not certain that these works would ever have second recordings, and at the time that didn’t matter: When you have music that is essentially rhythm-driven, with motoric surfaces and a modernistic rejection of emotionalism in favor of precision, what more do you need than a recording made under the composer’s imprimatur?

As it turns out, Mr. Reich’s work is as interpretable as the Beethoven string quartets or the Boulez piano sonatas. Alarm Will Sound made that point with its debut recording, a 2002 pairing of “Tehillim” with a revised version of “The Desert Music” that offered fresh views of works listeners thought they knew thoroughly. Since then, there has been a flood of Reich recordings made without the composer looking on. And with his 80th birthday approaching (on Oct. 3), three new discs join the queue: the London Symphony Orchestra Percussion Ensemble’s “Sextet | Clapping Music | Music for Pieces of Wood” (LSO Live); Third Coast Percussion’s “Steve Reich” (Çedille) and Ensemble Signal’s “Double Sextet/Radio Rewrite” (Harmonia Mundi).

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In a 1977 live recording from the Kitchen (Orange Mountain), Mr. Reich and company give a speedy, almost breathless account. Exciting as it is, there is something to be said for slowing the pace, as both the LSO percussionists and Third Coast Percussion do. The LSO version is oddly muted, though it has a measure of dynamic nuance, particularly in the work’s middle section, that Mr. Reich’s reading lacks. But it pales in comparison to the Third Coast performance.

For starters, Third Coast uses slats of purpleheart wood, which produce a rounder, more resonant tone than the claves Mr. Reich prescribes, and its performance, while rhythmically strict, has moments of dynamic suppleness that make the piece breathe in ways its competitors’ versions do not.

A similar difference in clarity defines the Third Coast and LSO readings of the magnificently contrapuntal Sextet (1984). Both take a less sharp-edged, aggressive view than Mr. Reich and his own ensemble did on their 1987 recording (Nonesuch), and where the balances on Mr. Reich’s discs sound carefully manipulated at the mixing board, the Third Coast and LSO recordings sound natural and organic.

But the LSO recording has a gauzy quality that makes the work’s keyboard and percussion timbres (sometimes bowed) sound seamlessly blended. The remarkable clarity of the Third Coast version, which gives every instrument a distinct profile, is more effective. Third Coast’s program is more generous as well: The disc also includes vital, bright-hued accounts of “Nagoya Marimbas” (1994) and the richly chromatic, three-movement “Mallet Quartet” (2009).

 

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