The Southbank’s The Rest is Noise continues to draw the crowds, although the promise of Steve Reich himself can’t have made this concert too hard to sell. Reich’s own contribution to this evening, the culmination of a weekend of music and events entitled “Superpower”, was limited to some clapping and letting go of a microphone. But the more taxing job of performing his seminal 1976 work Music for 18 Musicians was left in the capable hands of the Colin Currie Group, and they produced a vibrant, warm rendition, making its importance in 20th-century music history palpable.

Steve Reich © Wonge Bergmann
Steve Reich
© Wonge Bergmann

It had been nicely set in context, too, by four earlier Reich numbers performed in the first half. Clapping Music (1972) is one of the clearest examples of Reich’s interest in musical pattern-making; it’s a pure study in rhythm for just two performers, which Reich and Currie dispatched with apparent ease. Music for Pieces of Wood (1973) expands on this idea; here, five players are called for, along with five pairs of tuned claves, and the effect is a little freer, more dynamic – especially in the hands of these five percussionists, who managed to find the drama inherent in this abstract piece. The other two pieces played, meanwhile, are pure process: Pendulum Music (1968) simply plays out what happens when four microphones are left to swing above some amplifiers, generating some gentle feedback noises, whereas Come Out (1966) dissects a politically pointed snippet of a voice recording through repetitions which move gradually out of sync with each other. There’s much, much more to Reich than this, of course (the video-opera Three Tales, with its provocative take on technological history, would surely have been the perfect fit for The Rest is Noise’s talk-and-debate-heavy style) – but this first half was a neatly assembled taster menu nonetheless.

Ultimately, though, the first half was a footnote: Music for 18 Musicians is a piece which engulfs concert programmes and leaves you with nothing else in your head. This irrepressibly beautiful hour of music is hardly “minimal” in its effect; its hypnotically repeating rhythms are one thing, but quite another is the sheer brilliance of the scoring. Ensembles don’t come much more unorthodox than this: it involves four pianos (though as many as seven pianists in total), numerous tuned percussion instruments, maracas, four female voices, two clarinettists/bass clarinettists, and single violin and cello. And the sound this strange group produces is consistently exhilarating. Reich may be careful to vary the textures and instrumentations constantly, but arguably he needn’t: the soundworld of the piece, at any given moment, is unique, and utterly memorable.

As for this performance – it’s hard to imagine any better. The sound setup by Sound Intermedia was exemplary, presumably carefully modelled on Reich’s own original recording, and the ensemble played with focus and ease. This was apparently Currie’s first time performing the piece, but you wouldn’t have guessed, and his ensemble (featuring some impressively stellar names including violinist Jonathan Morton and pianist Huw Watkins) were brilliantly drilled and bursting with enthusiasm. Synergy Vocals has the best CV for this repertoire, and their contribution was unsurprisingly excellent as well. During the performance, I was caught between gazing in amazement at the focus of the players and the complexity of their task, and shutting my eyes and basking in the sound they made.

It’s consistent with the approach that all of The Rest is Noise has taken that Reich was represented by this programme, featuring his most iconic large-scale piece and a few best-of bits as well: this was no investigation into the lesser-known Steve Reich, or a fresh look at his work or his influences. This festival, superb as it has often been, has frequently told its story with primary colours. But when those colours are as bright as those Reich paints, there’s no cause for complaint.

*****