Steve REICH (b. 1936) Double Sextet (2007) [21:55]
Radio Rewrite (2012) [17:50]
Ensemble Signal/Brad Lubman
rec. March 2011 (sextet), January 2016, Concert Hall of EMPAC, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York. HARMONIA MUNDI HMU907671 [39:44]
Released with a sticker wishing Steve Reich a happy 80th birthday, this recording is a partner to Ensemble Signal’s well received version of the 1970s classic Music for 18 Musicians (review). The two pieces on this disc are amongst Reich’s most recent larger-scale works, but the performance technique for Double Sextet harks back to one he originally used in 1967 with Violin Phase, in which the performer plays against a pre-recorded track of their own performance of the first part. The choice to perform with all ‘live’ musicians as here delivers, as David Lang’s booklet note points out, “recreates the core of the classical-era chamber orchestra. Plus pianos.”
Following the familiar fast-slow-fast patterns of movements, Double Sextet has all of the Reich hallmarks of antiphonal expressiveness and rhythmic drive one could ask for, and both performance and recording are excellent. An alternative to this recording of Double Sextet would be Eighth Blackbird on the Nonesuch label. Their balance favours the strings a bit too much in the balance, and Ensemble Signal is a touch swifter in general, which adds a sprinkle of extra energy to the fast movements and to my ears makes for a preferable performance.
Radio Rewrite came about at least in part as a result of an encounter with the band Radiohead and guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s performance of Reich’s Electric Counterpoint. There are moments in the Hindenburg section of Steve Reich’s Three Tales from way back in 1997 which are called to mind in the effect of Radio Rewrite, and David Lang points towards another project called Reich Remixed, another kind of interactive meeting of music in which electronica artists took fragments of Reich’s music as he has done with Radiohead’s here, though in this case the references go little beyond a few hints and harmonic references – if you aren’t tuned into Radiohead’s minutiae you won’t notice the scraps referred to in Radio Remix.
Radio Rewrite has already appeared on the Nonesuch label with the Alarm Will Sound ensemble on an entertaining album with Jonny Greenwood’s colourful version of Electric Counterpoint and an overdubbed Piano Counterpoint. This recording of Radio Rewrite has plenty of emotive power in the slow movements, which seem to combine Early Music authenticity in the clean notes of the strings with Reich’s astringent harmonies. Ensemble Signal maintains its rhythmic energy and momentum in the faster movements, relishing the accents as a springboard for that much-needed sense of transparency and airborne flight. I love Reich’s feel for cyclical cadence and high drama in this piece. To my mind some of the movements could all be longer and more ‘minimal’ – there seem to be variations left unexplored in the first movement for instance, though I can also imagine where too much of a good thing might seem over-indulgent. This one of those pieces that has its own sense of narrative pace, and the careful equilibrium between each of the five movements makes for a buoyant ride.
Just under 40 minutes for a full-price CD seems a bit stingy, but in these days of downloads you can pick and choose how you acquire this music. Either way these recording and performances are highly recommendable, and every Steve Reich fan should have Radio Rewrite in their collection – with those descending lines in its slow movements we’re left asking, is the Great Man getting sentimental in his old age?