Chamber Orchestra Album of the Year – Ensemble Links performs Steve Reich

One of the seminal pieces in twentieth century music, Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians (1974-76) never fails to inspire and uplift the listener. A fusion of rigorous structural arch, luminous sonic spectrum and invigorating rhythmic pulse, Music for 18 Musicians is a towering masterpiece clad in the most sensuous guise imaginable. 

As suggested by its matter-of-factly title, Music for 18 Musicians is scored for a large chamber ensemble of pianos, mallet percussion, two clarinets, violin, viola and four voices. Cast in eleven sections, framed by opening and closing Pulses, bound together within an elaborate structural scheme, 18 is a score of symphonic proportions. 

Yet, there is nothing symphonic about 18, in the traditional sense. Rather, the whole piece derives from those eleven chords that comprise the opening pulse-chorale. In each of the eleven sections, Reich builds a four-minute sequence of a single chord, resulting in an hour-long score. 

Within each section, the music is clad in translucent counterpoint, awash with radiant, sunlit harmonies and tremendous arrays of colour. The wordless scat-derived vocal lines blend with the instruments, yielding to unforeseen sonic spheres. 

Since its premiere recording, taped by Deutsche Grammophon, but eventually released by ECM in 1978, Music for 18 Musicians has had an interesting track record in terms of album presentations. 

Given, that up until the mid-nineties, the only performance materials of 18 available were the handwritten parts used by the musicians of Reich’s own ensemble, performing and recording the piece was not a viable option for other ensembles.

Apart from a brilliant 1996 re-recording of the score by Steve Reich and Musicians for Nonesuch, the ECM premiere outing remained unchallenged for twenty years. Thanks to the performance materials prepared by Boosey and Hawkes, Ensemble Modern was the first group other than Reich’s own to record the score for RCA in 1998. 

Joined by Synergy Vocals and the members of Steve Reich and Musicians, the Ensemble Modern performance comes off as bright, detailed and quintessentially European take on the piece. 

Since the publication of the score and parts in 2000, two live renditions and three studio recordings have emerged. A CD of a concert performance by the Amadinda Percussion Group was released by Hungaroton in 2004, whereas in 2015, a Blu-ray/DVD of Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s ballet Rain, featuring Ictus Ensemble and Synergy Vocals performing the Reich score, appears on BelAir.   

In the studio department, the spacious Grand Vally State University New Music Ensemble 2007 take appeared on SACD in 2013, followed by the astounding Ensemble Signal recording on Harmonia Mundi in 2015. 

Just before the first lockdown, on 8 March 2020, the wonderful French contemporary experimental music group Ensemble Links made the third studio recording of Music for 18 Musicians in Strasbourg for Kairos.  

Ensemble Links and Rémi Durupt rehearsing Music for 18 Musicians. © Rémi Durup

The new Ensemble Links recording is an enchanting affair. Clocking at 54:33, it comes close to the ECM first release, at least in overall terms. On a deeper level, the performance can be perceived as a fusion of the American and European traditions of Music for 18 Musicians, assuming that such things exist in the first place.

Some aspects of the performance are rooted in the more strident, European view of Reich’s music, as manifested by the crystal-clear rendition of the contrapuntal fabric. Yet, as the score unfolds, the broader, blue-sky vistas of the American tradition take hold, yielding to wondrous sonic hue and radiant warmth. 

Although the music is fully written out in the score, the repetitions within the sections and transitions in between are up to the musicians. Performed without a conductor, Music for 18 Musicians is, in fact, chamber music on a large scale. The duties of a conductor are shared between the members of the ensemble, as they cue each other to proceed from one section to the next.  

Thus, Music for 18 Musicians provides an apt challenge for any ensemble. In performance, the musicians must be perfectly attuned to one another, in order to provide a coherent take on the score.

On the new album, Ensemble Links passes the test imposed by Reich’s score with flying colours. The score comes off both as a logical whole and a spellbinding sonic journey. 

The vocal and instrumental ensemble is beautifully balanced, giving rise to luminous counterpoint. The musical energy flows incessant from the emergence of the opening pulse to the fading of the final beat, resulting in a thoroughly uplifting experience.

Well recorded, the new album is the most welcome addition to the Reich discography, as well as the worthy recipient of Adventures in Music Chamber Orchestra Album of the Year award. Wholeheartedly recommended.        


Ensemble Links

Rémi Durupt, direction

Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians (1974-76)

Recorded at Théâtre Le Maillon, Strasbourg, 8 March 2020

Kairos Music 0015043KAI (2020), 1 CD

© Jari Kallio


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