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Steve REICH (b.1936)
Clapping Music [3:37]
Music for Pieces of Wood [11:42]
Sextet [27:47]
LSO Percussion Ensemble
rec. 30 October 2015, LSO St. Luke’s London
LSO LIVE LSO5073 [43:06]

Earlier this year Steve Reich undertook something of a world tour in the company of the London Sinfonietta. I attended their concert in Singapore and was impressed that the Esplanade concert hall was packed to the rafters with adoring fans, whose ecstatic reception of Reich was more what you might expect from fans at a rock concert. That the audience sat spellbound through the concert and remained in their droves afterwards in the hope of snatching a selfie with or, at least an autograph from, the Great Man revealed a fact which, I think, we tend to forget now that Reich has moved into the ranks of Grand Old Men of music. His music has something which profoundly resonates with a generation brought up on instant gratification, whether in the fields of fast food, visual entertainment or music. Almost two hours of uninterrupted Minimalism was lapped up by an Asian audience comprising a significant number of school-age children who clearly could have sat entranced through two hours more.

No chance of that here, with a disc running less than three quarters of an hour. But we must not look a gift horse in the mouth, and any new recording of Reich is worth serious consideration, especially when it comes from such an eminent band as the LSO.

Reich opened his Singapore concert by performing, alongside a colleague, his iconic Clapping Music. Witnessing the composer live on stage as well as seeing in action a most fascinating intellectual musical experiment is one thing, listening to it on a CD is something else altogether, and I remain unconvinced that the aural charms of Clapping Music are sufficient to make it really viable on CD.

To a certain extent, the same applies to Music for Pieces of Wood, dating from 1973 (the year after Clapping Music) and exercising the same intellectual and visual stimuli. On CD it sounds just like so many ticking clocks minus the allure of the occasional chime.

The important thing on this CD is the Sextet for pianos, vibraphones, marimbas, synthesisers and various untuned percussion, played by six players who move around the ensemble switching between instruments. This live performance from the LSO is notable for the subtlety of the playing, the interweaving and overlapping textures delicately delivered with an almost caressing intimacy which very quickly draws you into this world and induces an almost hypnotic trance-like state. The changes of pitch, pattern and colour set against a back drop of continual, pattering movement, come as moments of intense joy while the magical sound created by these instruments has an almost physical beauty.

Perhaps not so well represented on disc as some of Reich’s other works, the Sextet has nevertheless fared very well; and there is always the CPO recording of Reich’s own ensemble to use as a yardstick. Perhaps the very mean playing time and the two make-up pieces would not naturally make this a first choice in the face of the CPO disc (not to mention the excellent Nonesuch disc from Nexus which Reich directed the year the work was written – and while that has an even shorter playing time, it does pair the Sextet with the aurally–alluring Six Marimbas). But the LSO Percussion Ensemble does convey a considerable amount of magic and delicacy, and the recording is very good indeed.

Marc Rochester


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