Phases – The Music of Steve Reich: Diversions

Music for strings, percussion and celesta
You Are (Variations)

Synergy Vocals

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Alexander Rumpf [Bartók]
Stefan Asbury

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 7 October, 2006
Venue: Barbican Theatre, London

Dating from 1981, “Tehillim” (the Hebrew word for Psalms – Steve Reich sets verses from four of them) is a work that exudes confidence and high spirits. It is also that unusual thing – a minimalist piece with long, memorable melodic lines rather than short phrases repeated. And Reich’s tunes are truly ‘catchy’, especially those used in the linked Parts One and Two. Another astonishing feature of the score is that it manages to sound both ancient and contemporary at the same time.

This performance was a fine one, the BBC Symphony Orchestra delving into repertoire it cannot have encountered much before. Synergy Vocals was typically excellent, with the high soprano of Amy Howarth and Heather Cairncross’s rich alto deserving of special mention. Stefan Asbury gave lucid direction, though the opening and closing parts were steadier than I am used to hearing and the music didn’t quite ‘dance’ as joyously as it can do.

“Tehillim” concluded this programme which did not officially have an interval, though in practice the two Reich pieces required some extensive setting up. The success of his psalm settings seems to have encouraged Reich to further explore the use of texts in his work.

“You Are (Variations)” composed in 2004 is one such example. Four short epigrams from different sources (two rabbinical, one from Wittgenstein and another from Psalm 16) are given separate, though linked movements. The affirmative and pulsating opening finds pianos (four of them), vibraphones and marimbas to the fore – a characteristic Reich sonority. But this music has an ‘edgier’ feel to it, with a greater use of dissonance and, towards the end of the first movement, the pianos have a blues-like riff. The second movement follows immediately and, with a verse from Psalm 16, looks directly back to “Tehillim” with its freshness and dance-like rhythms. The gently lilting third movement leads to an exhilarating finale and I was struck by Reich’s ability to generate new ideas from a purely tonal language. “You Are (Variations)” is an impressive piece and was given a convincing performance.

To start this concert we had a rather dutiful account of Bartók’s magical Music for strings, percussion and celesta, which was lacking in mystery in the first and third movements and exuberance in the two faster ones. Alexander Rumpf conducted well enough, though why it was thought necessary to engage Oldenburg State Theatre’s ‘generalmusikdirektor’ when there are perfectly competent British conductors around who would have welcomed the opportunity of working with the BBCSO is puzzling.

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