As a composer, it must be comforting to know that there are groups of musicians who specialise in your music. This is certainly the case for Steve Reich, who is still going strong in his 80th year and whose music continues to captivate. Two of his close collaborators, the Colin Currie Group and Synergy Vocals, teamed up for this all-Reich concert of music spanning almost four decades. A true pioneer of minimalist music, Reich has been hugely influential and has produced a new musical soundscape which still divides opinion. The beauty of his music, however, is in the different ways it can be experienced, whether it be in the stylistic facets of minimalism and all that it has to offer, or simply the overall effect of the music on the listener, the 'psychoacoustic' effect that so fascinated Reich.

Colin Currie Group © Chris Gloag
Colin Currie Group
© Chris Gloag

Now to the crux. Live performances of Reich's music have to be precise and committed. In this context, the Colin Currie Group and Synergy Vocals delivered in spades. Their knowledge and understanding of Reich's music as well as their dedication and enthusiasm was evident in this mesmerising performance of three totally absorbing pieces, each different in scale and tone.

The concert opened with the Colin Currie Group performing two of Reich's more recent works. Mallet Quartet (2009) is scored for two vibraphones and two marimbas. It is a single movement piece in three sections: fast, slow, fast. In the two outer sections, the marimbas provide a constant harmonic background, above which the vibraphones present more melodic material. The fascinating part of this piece, however, is the stark contrast in texture in the central slow section. Here, Reich introduces a much sparser landscape with notes used much more sparingly. He was concerned that this section might actually be "too thin", but it does provide an unexpected stillness and a meditative quality that counters the vigour of the faster sections. 

Quartet for two vibraphones and two pianos was written for the Colin Currie Group and was premiered in 2014. It is an ideal companion to the Mallet Quartet – both pieces have two pairs of instruments, have a fast-slow-fast structure and end with the instruments converging and dying away in the higher registers. However, the later quartet is more volatile and changeable, with an unsettled and chaotic feeling in the two faster sections. But like the 2009 Quartet, the more reflective slow section provides a peaceful contrast before returning to the agitation of the faster sections.

In both of these pieces, Currie's ensemble performed immaculately and with great virtuosity, striking a perfect balance between the musicians and showing how important it is for the performers to listen to each other in this type of music. The ensemble has a captivating stage presence and is clearly at one with the music. They were forceful and vibrant in the faster outer sections and played the middle sections with serenity and sensitivity.

After the interval, the Colin Currie Group joined forces with Synergy Vocals to produce a scintillating and masterful performance of Reich's great masterpiece, Music for 18 Musicians. This landmark piece marks a turning point in the composer's musical perspective in terms of scale and scoring, and its significance cannot be underestimated. This was the first piece Reich wrote for a larger ensemble, and, at about an hour long, it requires heavy concentration and stamina from the performers. The work is based around 11 chords, which form individual sections that merge imperceptibly into each other. But the lifeblood of this piece is in its 'pulses'. The combination of the human breath pulse coming from the voices and clarinets, producing a wave-like effect, and the recurrent, unrelenting pulse that runs throughout the piece in an unchanging tempo creates a rather hypnotic pattern.

The combined forces of the Colin Currie Group and Synergy Vocals produced an authoritative and quite exceptional performance. The togetherness of the extended ensemble was apparent, with the pure, non-vibrato voices complementing perfectly the luminous textures created by the instrumentalists. The signalling of the various changes in the music through nods and gestures and the hand-offs between performers as they switched instruments and took over from each other were impressive and seamless.

The fascination of this remarkable piece lies in how this music can appear both static and organic at the same time. The ensemble tackled the complex interactions between the various lines and the underlying harmonies with fluidity and panache, but, above all, created iridescent tones and a transcendental sheen. But the true revelation here is how such a structured, mechanistic approach can somehow create excitement and heightened emotions of joy and redemption. It is a bizarre conundrum, but it works, and, when performed in such superb style by these two ensembles, it is incredibly powerful.