Steve Reich has argued forcefully and persistently that the lightness of ensemble touch required to float a piece such as his Music for Eighteen Musicians negates the need for orchestral muscle and multiple strings. New sorts of instrumental balance and weight, he insists, come into play through the creative deployment of microphones.
This new set, issued to celebrate his 80th birthday, places the limitations of his approach to the orchestra in an unforgiving light. Interviewing Reich for Gramophone’s March 2011 issue, I managed to extract the confession that his first orchestral piece The Four Sections (1987) had ‘the wrong orchestration’ to carry the music, and Kristjan Järvi’s lumbering tempi merely box-tick a foreseeable ritual as an opening movement labelled ‘Strings’ gives way to ‘Percussion’, ‘Winds and Brass’ and, finally, ‘Full Orchestra’. Michael Tilson Thomas and the LSO’s premiere recording had a fluent force and delicate touch that warmed the music from the inside. But Järvi makes heavy weather of that opening movement, his sluggish tempo forming an unholy alliance with his reluctance to enunciate rhythmic accents – and the tone is set for the remainder of the performance.
These premiere recordings of Daniel Variations and You Are (Variations) in their orchestral incarnations, alongside a second recording of Duet for two solo violins and strings, might be tempting, but again I would urge caution. Järvi’s take on Duet is more faithful than the syrupy performance that The Knights served up on their album ‘The Ground Beneath Our Feet’ (Warner Classics, 7/15US) but its pastoral colours – the work was written for Yehudi Menuhin – never entirely convince.
Meanwhile, the two Variations pieces were much better served by their original Nonesuch recordings, with Grant Gershon leading the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Although Järvi inputs some rhythmic definition into Daniel Variations (check out the strings during the opening of the second movement), generally this instrumental monumentalism makes Reich sound needlessly overcooked and stagy – as if Carmina Burana had been orchestrated by Louis Andriessen – and the MDR Leipzig Chorus, especially the men’s voices, strain in the high register. The hardy perennial Clapping Music is dispatched with an effortless swing by Reich and Järvi. Two pairs of hands work through a rhythmic puzzle and demonstrate that, in Reich’s music, less is usually more.