Steve REICH, “Duet” = Duet for Two Solo Violins, compositions [Tracklist follows] – MDR Leipzig Symphony Orchestra/MDR Leipzig Radio Choir/Kristjan Järvi – Sony Classical 88985366362 (2 CDs), 92:58, (11/11/16) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Some of Reich’s best works given excellent performances,

As one of the founding composers and one of the best known of America’s minimalism movement, Steve Reich has been incredibly consistent. He continues to write music that is very recognizably of his own signature style and I think always of high quality. The best thing about his output – and of others of his generation, most notably Philip Glass and John Adams – is that he writes in a very personal idiom that has evolved over the years and yet cannot be simplistically labeled as ‘minimalist’ – let alone be confused for music by others such as Glass and Adams. (and the same can and should be said of them, as well)

To me, there are two elements to Steve’s music that help to define his art; almost all of his pieces have a very buoyant and recognizable rhythmic ‘palate’ for rhythms have always been an even bigger hallmark of Reich’s music than other composers and – often – the presence of texts or stories or meaning that evokes Reich’s Jewish culture. In fact, the Daniel Variations, first written for a chamber ensemble, in homage to the late American Jewish reporter, Daniel Pearl. The texts to this moving but hopeful work are taken both from the words of Daniel Pearl as well as from the Old Testament Book of Daniel. This recording represents the premiere recording of the full orchestral version and I believe it to be among Reich’s very best works.

The ‘You Are’ Variations are also an orchestral rendition premiere and here, too, Reich sets several aphorisms for chorus and orchestra; from texts such as that from Rebbe Nachman, a Chasidic mystic; the Hebrew original text of Psalm XVI and the Talmud. This too is a moving but propulsive work that captures your attention well.  I have always liked works for chorus and orchestra and – going all the way back to his Desert Music – I think Reich meshes text with music extremely well.

Both of these brilliant full-bodied works comprise the second disc in this two CD collection and were my favorites, although I greatly enjoyed Reich’s Duet and The Four Sections as well. The Duet for two violins and strings was written on 1993 on the request of Yehudi Menuhin. This fairly short work is very enjoyable to listen to and blends the two solo violins beautifully without being a virtuosic concertante type work.

The Four Sections was commissioned and premiered by the San Francisco Symphony and is quite similar to a ‘concerto for orchestra’ in that the title refers to the sections of the orchestra; woodwinds, brass, strings and percussion; each given some really nice and often exciting (and fully ‘Reich-like’) melodic cells and rhythmic patterns to employ. To this purpose I have also felt that, of the founding minimalist composers, Reich writes exceptionally well for mallet and keyboard percussion.

His Clapping Music, written in 1971, is just what it sounds like; providing an opportunity for musical expression without instruments, just the human body. This well-known and fairly brief work is impressive for the synchronicity required – performed here flawlessly by Reich and conductor Kristjan Järvi.

The performances here with the forces of the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony and Chorus under maestro Järvi are dedicated and very impressive. Additionally, I do think this represents some of Reich’s very best music. If I were writing the updated history of western music; post Copland and Stravinsky et al, there is no way to ignore the influence of the then correctly nicknamed minimalist school. There have been hundreds of composers who have adopted some or all of the techniques and philosophies contained in this movement that – essentially – reaffirms the human connection to tonality. Of the key composers—Glass, Adams, Reich, Terry Riley—many consider Steve Reich to be the most influential and artistically consistent. There are times, circumstances and individual works that make me feel that way personally, such as this exemplary collection.

Duet for Two Solo Violins and String Orchestra
Clapping Music
The Four Sections
Daniel Variations
You Are Variations

—Daniel Coombs