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Steve REICH (b.1936)
Vermont Counterpoint [8:43]
Eight Lines (1979) [18:11]
New York Counterpoint (1985) [11:09]
Four Organs (1970) [24:12]
Philip GLASS (b.1937)
Façades [7:47]
Company [9:02]
Ransom Wilson (flutes, Vermont Counterpoint, Eight Lines), Solisti New York (Eight Lines), Alain Damiens (clarinet, New York Counterpoint), Michael Tilson Thomas (organs, Four Organs) and London Chamber Orchestra/Christopher Warren-Green (Façades, Company)
rec. 1982, Smothers Theatre, Pepperdine University, Malibu, California (Vermont Counterpoint, Eight Lines), 17 July 1996, IRCAM, Paris (New York Counterpoint), 1973, no further information (Four Organs), 4-5 March 1990, All Saints Church, Petersham (Façades, Company).


Experience Classicsonline

Listening to this CD has been something of a nostalgia trip for me. The Ransom Wilson performances of Vermont Counterpoint and Eight Lines appeared on EMI in 1984, along with a cracking performance of John Adams’s Grand Pianola Music, this time conducted by Ransom Wilson. The original programme of this album has been available on CD, but the nice Charles Demuth painting on the cover, ‘My Egypt’ from 1927 becomes a bit lost on the smaller format when compared to the nice big LP. Wilson became something of a minimalism zealot at the time, and it is his arrangement of Steve Reich’s Octet that becomes the piece Eight Lines on this recording. 

Ignoring the typo on the back of this release which has Ransom Wilson as a clarinettist; Vermont Counterpoint is made by recording nine ‘ensemble’ parts of three piccolos, three flutes and three alto flutes. There are two solo parts played on each instrument successively, and Ransom Wilson plays all of these. We prepared a new recording of this piece for the 2003 Steve Reich festival at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague, and the mind-mangling process of getting each part to fit nearly caused the player a nervous breakdown. It’s a tricky job, but Ransom Wilson makes it sound effortless. His recording does sound a little artificial now – something which is almost unavoidable with all that overdubbing, but is still pretty definitive. This piece is great fun, and has that kind of hypnotic charm which lingers surprisingly long in the mind after a spin of the disc. I had forgotten how much layering goes on with the parts, bringing the alto flutes in closer to balance with the piccolos, which sometimes sound like a chattering menagerie further away in the background. The only other commercial version of this piece I know to be available is on a Kronos Quartet release, but arranged for marimbas and called Tokyo/Vermont Counterpoint

For the other Steve Reich works I’ve referred to the Bang on a Can ensemble recording on a Nonesuch CD, 7559-79481-2. I still have an affection for the 1980 mallet instrument-heavy recording of Octet on ECM, but this differs in too many ways from Eight Lines to bear comparison, and is in any case the version which Reich withdrew after making his own arrangement of the work, the one played by Bang on a Can. The Bang on a Can strings are more natural sounding but a bit thinner than the multiple instruments of the Solisti New York, which by comparison sound a bit phasey. Both performances have the right kind of bounce however. The Nonesuch recording is drier and wins on detail, but Ransom Wilson still provides a majestic flute solo which has more zip than the player from Bang on a Can, who I can’t name as there are several, and they don’t say who plays what. 

I remember seeing New York Counterpoint played live on the stage in the Royal College of music, and the spatial speaker installation made for an unforgettable experience to which a mere stereo recording can never quite do justice. Like Vermont Counterpoint, the piece gathers together multiple overdubbed parts of nine B-flat clarinets and three bass clarinets. Unlike the flute work this has three movements, fast-slow(er)-fast, a familiar Reich pattern.  Alain Damiens has a nice, woody Wurlitzer clarinet sound on the EMI disc, and I very much enjoy his swinging, mellow sound. Evan Ziporyn has the supreme advantage of three access points for each movement on her Nonesuch recording, which means you can click on the groovy third movement and start dancing straight away. Her clarinets have a slightly more neutral sound and her articulation is a little less sharp, allowing the fading ostinato repeated notes to melt into each other a little more subtly. Her bass clarinet in the last movement sounds as if played with deliberate key slaps, which gives it a different character. This is a case of swings and roundabouts, and I only wish EMI had seen fit to provide cues for each section on this re-release – I do love a good dance. 

Four Organs is played by, yes, you read it correctly, Michael Tilson Thomas, who also had the work arranged for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This is one of the most minimal of Reich’s works, with an unchanging dominant eleventh chord played on four small electric Farfisa organs; in 1970 one of the standard keyboards carried by every self-respecting rock band. The chord gradually augments over two maracas which keep the beat. The more recent Nonesuch recording has more impact and a greater stereo spread between the instruments. The maracas also have more presence in the more recent recording, and I’ve been known to use it to encourage my daughter to clean her teeth. Again however, I find little to choose between this and the older 1973 EMI version, which now has somewhat historic status, though not quite as much as the premiere recording which had Philip Glass as one of the organists. 

Putting Steve Reich alongside Philip Glass on one CD would seem logical, but the gentle world of Façades really has about as much to do with Four Organs as Megadeth does with Enya. The pieces on this disc have of course been around for ages, and were originally recorded by the Glass Ensemble for CBS. These nice London Chamber orchestra recordings were a popular choice on the Virgin label in the 1990s on an album called ‘Minimalist’ which also had Reich’s Eight Lines. Both of the works on this disc have a background in the visual arts. Façades was originally intended for the film Koyaanisqatsi but never made it into the final cut. Company from the same year, went with a dramatisation of Samuel Beckett’s novella of the same name. This latter piece has some more dramatic writing in some of its four movements, but is essentially harmless and pleasant aural wallpaper which would have made effective incidental music for such a production. 

All in all a good value release for someone interested in an introduction to ‘minimal’ music, and that of earlier Steve Reich in particular. Those switched on by the grooves in New York Counterpoint should also seek out the Electric Counterpoint for guitars, whose third section will also have you on your feet and moovin’. Do I prefer Bang on a Can for the Reich pieces? Ultimately yes, by a small margin, but then you have to put up with paying full whack for an appallingly short CD of just under 45 minutes. With this new EMI compilation you get all that and a whole lot of nice extras, so this has to be a firm recommendation to anyone interested in the repertoire, or just keen for a bit of 20th century nostalgia.

Dominy Clements

see also Review by Rob Barnett


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