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Steve REICH (b. 1936)
Sextet (1984) [27:00]
Double Sextet (2007) [22:55]
rec. 2014/16, The Black Diamond, Copenhagen & Odense Concert Hall MODE RECORDS MODCD300 [49:54]
There is more than one way to skin a cat, and there is always more than one way to perform good music. Steve Reich’s Sextet is a long way past being ‘minimalist’, even though there are ostinato elements that recall that particular phase in Western music’s evolution. The first movement and other sections recall Reich’s The Desert Music, while the groovy low piano notes in the final Fast section have something of the finale of New York Counterpoint about them. Multi-layered percussion makes all of this a feast for the ear, and Ekkozone and their hyper-reality studio recording play the piece with a swing and uplifting sense of fun that is very infectious indeed. The bass drums on the second Moderate section are played with musical subtlety but have been balanced in such a way that you’ll enjoy seeing your woofers moving about at reasonable volume. Stereo spread is also a good feature of this recording for all but the piano sound, which is kept very much to the centre channel.
There are numerous recordings of Sextet around. Third Coast Percussion (review) is good, with marginally more measured tempi than Ekkozone and a close-miked balance that reveals superb playing while at the same time being less fun and involving. Steve Reich and Musicians on the Nonesuch label is a classic of course, but uses a rather heavy sounding organ in the opening – this first movement being a little faster than Ekkozone while the remaining movements are as close in timing as makes no difference. The LSO Percussion Ensemble is ok (review), but in this case is too light on the sustained organ notes in the first movement, and there are a couple of moments of imprecision in the ensemble playing elsewhere that dampened my enthusiasm somewhat – understandable for a live performance, but less desirable in repeated listening. Go back to the impact of Ekkozone’s opening after living the LSO for a while and you’ll be hooked straight away.
Double Sextet is also a fine piece, though to my ears not quite the masterpiece that is Sextet. Ekkozone put plenty of dramatic urgency into the first of its three movements, and once again the recording is full of detail and presence. The slow middle movement is soulfully melancholic and atmospheric – a cinematic scene of nocturnal regret, while the finale is even more of a bustling city street than the first.
I greatly enjoyed Ensemble Signal’s recording of the Double Sextet on the Harmonia Mundi label (review). The timings are a little shorter on this version, though not by enough to change the character of the music by a great deal. Ekkozone’s Slow movement has more emotional impact to my ears, their instruments more natural sounding in general, and the vibrato in the string sound adds an extra few ounces of heartstring tug to the cooler sound of Ensemble Signal.
All of these comparative notes are very marginal, and I haven’t come across any recordings of either of these works that are complete duds. As Adam Sliwinski writes in the booklet note for this release, Steve Reich’s music is “like a native language” to percussionists these days, and the chances are that if you walk down the corridor of any decently sized music academy’s percussion department you will hear one or other of his pieces being perfected. Ekkozone’s recordings of both works on this CD are second to none, and should be placed on your wish list forthwith.