Classical Music Review: New Releases

Steve Reich - New York Counterpoint & other works.  New York Counterpoint; Eight Lines (Octet); Four Organs. Bang on a Can (Michael Gordon, Lisa Moore, Mark Stewart, Evan Ziporyn, James Preiss). Bradley Lubman, conductor.  Nonesuch 79481-2.

Even though Steve Reich has written masterpieces like Drumming (1971), Sextet (1985), Music for 18 Musicians (1976), and, just possibly, 3 Movements (1986), his recent output other than his Grammy-winning new recording of 18 has been pretty weak.  His mammoth The Cave (1993) really only caught fire in its last -- American -- part, and City Life (1994) was an outright embarrassment.  And so a live encounter with Triple Quartet (1999), with Kronos playing in real time against two recorded versions of itself restored my hope.  Reich's latest CD is culled from his 10 CD set Works 1965-1995.

Both New York Counterpoint (1985) and Eight Lines (1979/83) are charming but relatively minor.  The first, written for Richard Stoltzman, is for nine B-flat clarinets and three bass clarinets which build up complex syncopated canons.  The pulsing chords which defined the harmonic structure of 18 reappear in spots but their function here is only coloristic.  Though Evan Ziporyn's playing seems accurate enough, it's undermined by the engineering which gives it an abrasive edge.  Eight Lines fares much better.  Originally an ensemble piece for Steve Reich and Musicians, it's performed here by two of its long-time members, pianists Nurit Tilles and Edmund Nielmann, as well as 12 other musicians who play violin, cello, flute, piccolo and clarinet.  Its fascination comes from its bustling textures which are supported by a droning medieval-sounding cadence in the strings.  Reich also times the entrances and exits of his players like a good theatre director or choreographer -- no one outstays their welcome.

The 1970 Four Organs has lots of drama too, and that's because Reich seems more interested here in the visceral/emotive power of sound rather than his usual canonic games.  Scored for four electric organs, it also has a maraca player who lays down a steady eighth-note pulse -- ca. 200 throughout -- its entire content being a slowly elongated 11th chord in A marked forte.  The gradual lengthening -- the opening rests are replaced by steady beating longer notes (mostly whole) at the end -- gives a paradoxical sensation, time is both arrested and expanded.  Four Organs is a far better piece than more famous and influential ones like Come Out (1966) and  It's Gonna Rain (1965), and almost as good as Philip Glass's 1969 Two Pages, also on Nonesuch.  The musicians here play with concentration and conviction.  Their efforts are however diluted by echoy sound, especially noticeable in the beginning's thinner textures.  The composer's original Angel recording with himself, Roger Kellaway, Ralph Grierson and Michael Tilson Thomas on organs is five minutes longer and packs a more powerful punch.  Those who don't know it will probably find this one perfectly OK.

(The program notes for this current version are by K. Robert Schwarz (1956-1999) who wrote tellingly for many publications, and does so here: the album is dedicated to him.)

Michael McDonagh
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