Steve Reich Three Movements / The Desert Music (conductor: Kristjan Järvi) Review

Album. Released 2011.  

BBC Review

Near-perfect performances which deliver a tautly satisfying experience.

Daniel Ross 2011

So much of Steve Reich’s music depends on shifting tensions and sonorities. The slightest harmonic tweak in the upper strings must be as committed as the most grounding and predictable left-handed piano thuds. Consequently, performing his works requires an almost telepathic connection between musicians and expert marshalling, perhaps even more so than any other contemporary composer. This new recording of Reich’s Desert Music and his Three Movements fortunately adheres to this maxim, presenting unpretentiously but effectively these effervescent, atmospheric works.

Beginning the disc with a comparative vignette, Three Movements, Kristjan Järvi and the Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich are so tightly wound you’d think a stray flick would derail them. Dynamic levels stray in and out of focus with the thickness of texture, the work proving to be a machined manipulator of atmosphere. Järvi encourages complete union amongst his ensemble, the result being a tautly satisfying experience.

The Desert Music, which follows, is over three times the length of Three Movements, and requires even more disciplined corralling of much larger forces. Despite this, the effect is one vastly different to the preceding work. Rather than the wide-eyed concentration of Three Movements, this recording oozes performative ease. The Sine Nomine vocalists are, from their ghostly first utterances of the William Carlos Williams text, fluidly entertaining and emotionally direct. The players, though, particularly the strings, match them completely. Their entrance at the top of the slow third movement is especially well-judged, full of melodic instinct but without sacrificing the intricate nature of the burbling rhythms beneath.

Balancing the urge to imbue The Desert Music with too much flamboyance and the need to make it as mechanical as possible is a huge ask of an orchestra. What the musicians here have understood is that Reich so rarely gives the chance for them to have fun and to become anything other than obeying machines, so when you’re afforded such an opportunity you must take it. To vulgarise the efficient melodies would completely nullify the work, so it is to their eternal credit that the players and Järvi manage to keep a handle on proceedings. As thrilling as Reich’s works usually are, they rely strongly on perfect performance – and this honestly isn’t far off.

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