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Steve REICH (b. 1936)
Sextet (1984) [27.22]
Piano Phase (1967) [13.40]
Eight Lines (1979-83) [16.10]
The London Steve Reich Ensemble/Kevin Griffiths
rec. 17-19 October 2006, Tonhalle Zurich, Switzerland. DDD
CPO 7773372 [57.12] 
Experience Classicsonline

This is a debut recording from the London Steve Reich Ensemble, a group founded to perform the music of Steve Reich. The group says, “By putting particular emphasis on his music while programming it alongside other repertoire, the ensemble aims to create its own originality.” In this recording, they present three works from two different periods of Reich’s career.

The first work, Sextet, was composed in 1984, and is a small-ensemble work for percussion instruments. It features the type of canonical music that Reich explored in Six Pianos, where “two or three players on identical instruments substitute beats for rests to build up repeating patterns in canon with each other.” This work, in five movements, has the rhythm that is familiar in Reich’s music, and the type of melodic structures that he used in his compositions of this period. This recording is a minute longer than Reich’s own Nonesuch recording, and notably eschews synthesizers - replacing them with bowed vibraphones. The sound here is excellent, giving the ensemble a luscious audio presence.

Piano Phase is one of Reich’s more experimental works, where two pianos play similar music then fall out of phase; that is, one plays slightly later than another. As the phasing shifts the pianos sound as though they are chasing each other. This is a difficult work to perform, and here it comes off very well, with, again, excellent sound and presence. However, this work is seven minutes shorter than Reich’s own recording, though the notes don’t say anything about what was cut. One must assume that these are simply repeats that were not performed, but this is just a guess. 

The final work on this disc, Eight Lines, is a re-orchestration of Octet, a work that Reich recorded for ECM in 1980. The LP containing this work was the second ECM recording, and one that helped Steve Reich develop a following beyond the usual avant-garde performance spaces. (I heard these works performed at New York’s Bottom Line, a “cabaret”, which saw, around the same time, concerts by Lou Reed and Dire Straits.) Scored for ten instruments (two string quartets, two pianos, two flutes (doubling on piccolos) and two clarinets (doubling on bass clarinets), this piece is rhythmic and melodic, much different from Piano Phase or some of Reich’s earlier, more experimental output. It is, in fact, one of the most accessible of Reich’s works of this period, similar in tone to Music for 18 Musicians, and featuring foot-tapping melodies. While the sound here is excellent again, I’m partial to the earlier ECM and Nonesuch recordings (the former called Octet, the latter Eight Lines), which have a less rushed feeling to them. But this remains an excellent performance, and, again, wins out by the spaciousness of the sound. 

All in all, this excellent recording may help people discover the intriguing music of Steve Reich, and one hopes this ensemble will continue to record it. As the composer says in the liner-notes, this is “an outstanding group of young musicians” and “These performances pulse with life.”

Kirk McElhearn


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