Colin Currie has recruited some big name composers for his Metal Wood Skin festival at the Southbank Centre. Last Sunday he gave the UK première of a new work by Louis Andriessen, and the season closes in December with the UK première of James MacMillan’s Second Percussion Concerto. But the première in this afternoon’s concert was an even greater coup: a new work by Steve Reich, his Quartet for two pianos and two marimbas, written for the occasion and commissioned by Currie himself.

Colin Currie and Steve Reich © Ben Larpent
Colin Currie and Steve Reich
© Ben Larpent

Reich was listed in the advertising for this concert as a performer, but his presence on stage was no more than a token gesture. The programme opened with Currie and Reich performing the short, though seminal, Clapping Music. Currie did the bulk of the work, taking the changing part while Reich clapped the unchanging rhythm against which he interacts. Reich appeared in his trademark black baseball cap, sprightly for his 79-odd years, although there was no getting away from the fact that that was about 40 years older than every other performer on the programme.

The rest of the concert was given by the Colin Currie Group, six musicians as versatile as he, all able to perform on a range of keyboard and percussion instruments, both tuned and unturned. The Sextet for percussion and keyboards, completed in 1985, turned out to be the most substantive and accomplished work here. Currie himself began the work at the piano, pounding out an ostinato figure that would become the basis of the first section. But radical shifts regularly change the configuration of the ensemble, with the players moving around between stations to take up other instruments. Currie eventually settled at the front of the stage, playing one of the two vibraphones and leading the ensemble from there. But it was clearly a collaborative effort too, with synchronisation achieved though subtle signals from one player to another around the stage. By the mid-80s, Reich had been experimenting for decades with ensemble techniques like this, and was writing music that would stretch any group. The work is in five movements, each at a different tempo and with different instrumentation. The movements are interconnected, and some are linked by transition sections involving gradual tempo changes. That is on top of his cross-phasing and intricate contrapuntal techniques, which all add up to extremely complex textures. The group held all this together, but the ensemble wasn’t uniformly precise, and there were occasional passages where the rhythms lost their focus as the ensemble drifted. Still, an impressive achievement, and undoubtedly the highlight of the programme.

Colin Currie Group © Debbie Scanlan
Colin Currie Group
© Debbie Scanlan

The second half began with the Mallet Quartet for two marimbas and two vibraphones from 2009. On the evidence of the two works in this second half, Reich’s more recent music is less imposing in its minimalist aesthetic, though just as playful as ever. The format for this piece is a background of piano figuration, made typically complex through canonic interplay, but always clearly accompaniment. Above this the two vibraphones play more melodic figurations. There is a clear hierarchy here, and Currie was very much the soloist. His virtuosity is equal to the extreme demands, the four sticks performing almost continuous broken chord rhythmic textures.

The Mallet Quartet turned out to be an excellent introduction to the new work, the Quartet for two vibraphones and two pianos. Both quartets are made up of short sections, each with a distinctive rhythmic identity. The new quartet is more sophisticated in the use of ensemble, and it is rarely clear what is foreground and what is background, or at least those categories always seem to be changing. It is quite melodic music though, with clear motivic patterns played out over euphonious major-key harmonies. The biggest surprise here was the piano writing, which was generally very pianistic, all arpeggio figures and sustained chords: after a spending his whole career using the piano as a percussion instrument, Reich has now come round to the idea of using it as a piano. And as with every other aspect of this new work, the impression it gives is of a composer who is now comfortable enough with his aesthetic that he no longer feels the need to push boundaries at every turn. Reich is as creative as ever, even as he approaches his ninth decade, but, as his newer works demonstrate, he no longer feels he has anything to prove.