Music for 18 Musicians
Steve Reich & Rainer Römer [Clapping Music]
Mats Bergström (electric guitar) [Electric Counterpoint]
Steve Reich (piano), Synergy Vocals & Ensemble Modern [Music for 18 Musicians]
Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood
Reviewed: 10 August, 2011
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
At Steve Reich concerts there is often a palpable sense of classical and popular music rubbing shoulders, not least in the audience – a reflection on the power of his compositions appealing to an unusually wide audience. This Prom, comprising three significant works of his musical development, acted as a celebration of his approaching 75th-birthday.
Structures large and small, then – the Royal Albert Hall acoustic used to much better effect than when Reich’s music was last performed at the Proms in 2006. Clapping Music benefited from sensitive amplification, the crisp rhythms closely caught if slightly compromised by ricochets of sound from the hall itself. The composer and Rainer Römer lent in towards each other in a performance that emphasised the work’s intimacy, despite the size of the venue. Uniform of tone until the end, they chose to stop dead rather than with a flourish. Mats Bergström then filled the hall with the sonorous web of notes that comprise Electric Counterpoint. He successfully brought out the live element of the piece, its pre-recorded parts steadily pulsing in the background. He also stood, walking around the stage more in the manner of a rock musician, but remaining rhythmically supple in his delivery. This was visually helpful, allowing him to project to the audience as if accompanying an unseen band – which, in effect, he was. Only the bass part in the third section had too much boom through the Royal Albert Hall speakers, but the performance was both satisfying and deeply expressive.
Music for 18 Musicians followed, widely regarded as the composer’s crowning score. As is his wont Reich took up duties on the fourth piano, part of an ensemble of nineteen (an extra percussionist) working to a strict rota. The visual elements of the piece were as strong as ever, the stamina of Ensemble Modern evident as its members worked tirelessly on the shaping of the melodic loops, whether on or off the beat. The four pianos drove the music forward at quite a rate, the piece crossing the line in just over 54 minutes. (Previous performances and recordings under Reich have allowed as much as 68.) Violinist Jagdish Mistry and clarinettist Nina Janssen-Deinzer led from the front, stressing the rhythmic qualities of the music through punchy, staccato delivery; and Synergy Vocals successfully created the ‘wave’ of singers, breaking over the top of the amassed tuned percussion. The marimbas were wonderfully sonorous; the percussion only compromised by the vibraphone, its C sharp and F sharp keys rang with a shrill timbre over the speakers. That this instrument should assume greater prominence was not a problem, mind, linking as it did all the component parts and sections of the piece.
Reich must be used by now to the standing ovations Music for 18 Musicians generates, a mixture of admiration at the music and wonder at the superhuman concentration and athleticism demanded of the players. That it continues to get this reception says much for its indomitable spirit and almost primal appeal.