Steve Reich

Eight Lines
You Are (Variations) [UK premiere]

Synergy Vocals
Ensemble Modern
Stefan Asbury

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 18 January, 2005
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

One interesting facet of this concert was that two of the three works also featured in the Barbican’s 60th birthday concert for Steve Reich. A 70th-birthday retrospective is planned next year, and so the present event was a reminder of his centrality on the new-music scene over the past 40 years – creating a body of work as conceptually consistent as it is – for the most part – musically impressive.

Especially welcome was the involvement of Ensemble Modern, the Frankfurt-based ensemble – its UK visits are all too infrequent – and Stefan Asbury, whose activities across Western Europe (notably in Holland and Portugal) have largely gone unnoticed in his home country. They gave a lithe, propulsive account of Eight Lines – Steve Reich’s 1983 chamber-orchestra transcription of his earlier Octet, and an engaging example of the linear melodic current that infused his music from the mid-1970s onwards. Asbury dependably maintained momentum across the music’s interlocking rhythmic planes, though the dislocation of one of the pianists led to some oddly balanced chord formations at one point.

It is inevitable that Tehillim (1981) should feature in a programme such as this, because the piece effects a quantum leap in Reich’s thinking while illuminating the sacred choral music of previous eras: one which reconciles past and present to a degree shared by few works of any period. Moreover, the unity of pulse across its four movements ensures a satisfying trajectory of pace and expression. Having impressed in Berio’s Sinfonia last year, Synergy Vocals gave notice of its pre-eminence as an amplified vocal ensemble with singing that brought Reich’s remodelling of Hebraic cantillation vividly to life. The fusillade of canons in ‘The heavens declare’ were truly mesmerising, while the hint of rhythmic nuance in ‘With the merciful’ and the cumulative affirmation of the closing Hallelujahs in ‘Praise Him’ galvanised the performance beyond the merely expert. The one proviso was Asbury’s drawing attention to the formal break between Parts Two and Three so that a measure of applause ensued, disrupting the focus of a performance which his conducting otherwise did so much to ensure.

Reich’s concert (i.e. non-theatrical) work of the last decade or more has often seemed more or less a relaxation between the demands of his more ambitious audio-visual projects. Certainly it would be hard to fault either the technical consistency or the musical logic of You Are (Variations), completed last year. These ‘treatments’ (rather than settings as such) of single lines from tracts of weighty philosophical import take the form of variations, both in themselves and across the four movements as a whole. However, a continued (and, in the context of attempts by his Minimalist contemporaries, probably justified) disinclination to derive emotion directly from those words throws an increasing emphasis onto the harmonic and rhythmic significance that can be derived from the music – and it is here that the work most likely falls down. The combination of stark syllabic declamation over metrically evened-out rhythms and expressively over-emphatic harmonies is simply not enough to generate a result equal to the intention, however pleasing the Stravinskian textural pungency may be in itself.

Even so, the sheer conviction of the performance presented this latest stage in the Reichian odyssey to positive effect; ensuring one keeps faith with the composer alone of those who have established Minimalism as the pre-eminent aesthetic of the past quarter-century. Next year’s retrospective is keenly anticipated – and if Ensemble Modern and Stefan Asbury are to feature, so much the better.

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