To say I am a fan of Steve Reich is as big an understatement as saying it’s a bad idea to invade Russia in winter. Although this particular concert comes only three weeks after a concert in April of Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians at Paris’s Cité de la Musique, the opportunity to see the man himself performing one of his iconic works Clapping Music, and indeed to listen to several of his lesser-performed orchestral works live, was absolutely one not to be missed.

Steve Reich © Alice Arnold
Steve Reich
© Alice Arnold

A surprisingly lifeless audience welcomed the MDR Rundfunk orchestra and Kristjan Järvi, accompanied by the man of the hour, Steve Reich. Hands at the ready, Reich and Järvi swiftly started the concert with Reich’s Clapping Music (1971). The silence of the hall only reinforced the rhythmic hammering of the ever-changing clapping sequences, and whilst Järvi occasionally overpowered Reich, the performance was no less hypnotic and utterly impressive.

Järvi quickly assumed his position on the podium for Duet (1993), Reich’s small chamber work for two violins and lower strings. Despite some excellent and careful playing by violinists Waltraut Wächter and Andreas Hartmann, with a sharp, bright sound produced by both performers, their unfortunate positioning behind the two centre-stage pianos made for a somewhat muffled and slushy sound at times, making it hard to distinguish the soloists from the heavier stringed instruments placed right next to the soloists.

Unfortunately, this was not a temporary issue but rather one felt throughout the evening. The Salle Pleyel’s acoustics are not to be criticized, but nor are they compatible with all types of performance. Although the soloists were clearly holding nothing back, the sound from such a small chamber group seemed dampened somewhere between the performer and the audience; unless amplified, smaller formations are bound to suffer from the deep hall’s almost cavernous nature.

Fortunately, Reich’s The Four Sections (1987) calls for full orchestral forces, and we were treated to a spellbinding performance of what is, in my opinion, one of Reich’s finest works. Made up of “four sections” representing the four elements of an orchestra (strings, wind, brass, and percussion), the work is a blend of different timbres, textures and styles. Excellently managed by Järvi, the orchestra was able to bring out each and every one of its “sections” whilst nonetheless retaining the overall contrapuntal effects created by Reich. As much a testament to Reich’s musical skill as to Järvi’s orchestral control, just when the musical sequences reached a point of familiarity, the music, textures and even rhythmic pulses changed abruptly, sending an awakening jolt to every audience member. As each movement increases in tempo and momentum, the final movement is a powerful finish, with pianos, percussion, double basses and cellos hammering a rhythmic pulse whilst the upper registers of the orchestra gradually build a repeated melodic motif. Lifeless perhaps at the start of the concert, the audience were certainly awoken by the explosive performance.

Reich’s first work to incorporate choir, The Desert Music (1983) is an interesting work. Full of trademark Reich swells (evocative of, and composed just after, Music for 18 Musicians), Desert Music also brings forth many textures and sounds unlike other works by the composer. Drawing his texts from the poetry of William Carlos Williams (The Orchestra, Theocritus: Idyl I – A version from the Greek, and Asphodel, That Greeny Flower), Reich’s text settings reflect the musical setting: It is a principle of music / to repeat the theme. Repeat / and repeat again, / as the pace mounts. The / theme is difficult / but not more difficult / than the fact to be / resolved. With excellent diction, the choir soared above the almost mechanical orchestration beneath. The rhythmic beat found throughout added great pace to the work, superbly performed by the orchestra under Järvi’s charismatic and playful conducting, almost dancing on the podium.

The concert ultimately offered a thoroughly thought-out programme, one that evolved from the primitive timbre of the human body, Clapping Music, moving on to the chamber timbre with Duets, the orchestral timbre with The Four Sections and finally to the choral symphonic timbre with The Desert Music. Moving steadily upwards in grandeur and complexity, we naturally ended on an epic high, with a little cherry on top in the form of an energetic and almost visceral encore. This was undoubtedly a concert that left me wanting more…