The Desert Music
Chorus sine nomine [The Desert Music]
Recorded 9-16 October 2006 in ORF Radio Kulturhaus, Vienna [The Desert Music] and 19-21 November 2007 in Musikverein, Vienna
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: May 2011
CD No: CHANDOS
CHSA 5091 [SACD]
Duration: 61 minutes
The medium of the orchestra has not necessarily been Steve Reich’s first choice, the composer preferring to operate with ensembles drawn up of largely percussive instruments, not least pianos, vibraphones and marimbas. Yet he has shown in his writing for orchestra a technique that draws on elements of some of his favourite composers, notably Bartók, and applies those to his already highly distinctive style.
The Desert Music is perhaps Reich’s most successful work for the medium, adding a chorus to set texts by poet William Carlos Williams. Its pioneering recording, made soon after the 1984 completion by the composer’s own vocal ensemble and with Michael Tilson Thomas and the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra, has become something of a classic. In this Chandos recording, made nearly five years ago (and finally issued in June 2011), Kristjan Järvi demonstrates an acute understanding of the composer’s style, helped considerably by the rhythmic clarity he secures from chorus and orchestra. The wonderfully open textures, evocative of wide-open desert spaces, shift gradually as sand might rearrange itself in the wind, each harmonic move seemingly inevitable and subtly pointed by softly-held brass notes.
Having set the scene the orchestra retreat to the middle foreground, and the overlapping of the text becomes crucial. Järvi has the measure of the work’s structure, the broad canvas of the first section and the more subtle, reduced scoring of percussion in the second, though here MTT secures a greater vitality from the male voices. Järvi handles the transitions between contrasting tempos very well, especially the tricky one in the central section where the text becomes uncommonly apt – stating how “it is a principle of music to repeat the theme. Repeat and repeat again, as the pace mounts.” This is the emotional centrepiece of the work, and the violas’ glissandos – glimpsed as if in a mirage – are spot-lit by the engineers as the composer requests: truly haunting. The chorus is excellent if occasionally struggling for parity when the full orchestra is used, but handling the demanding high registers of the closing section with alacrity, especially where they are left suspended in space.
Complementing The Desert Music is one of Reich’s shorter works for orchestra. Three Movements, written for the St Louis Symphony Orchestra and Leonard Slatkin in 1986, takes the form of a traditional A-B-A structure, the middle section operating at half the speed of the outer two. The excellent Chandos recording helps to emphasise the opulent, treble-rich textures of the opening, filling out as the bass arrives and gradually generating more momentum. The middle section is serene, and then the familiar chugging motifs work their way back in for the finale. Kristjan Järvi once again demonstrates an affinity with Reich’s writing, bringing the rhythmic staples of two pianos, marimbas and vibraphones to the fore as a concertante, while keeping an eye on the overall progression of the piece.
Both performances are excellent, recorded with complementary sound emphasising Reich’s range of texture. Perhaps more important is the music’s emotional content, completely refuting the notion that minimalist music is cold and unfeeling.