Reich from LSO Live

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REICH: SEXTET; CLAPPING MUSIC; MUSIC FOR PIECES OF WOOD, LSO Percussion Ensemble, Neil Percy/LSO Live SACD LSO5073  This timely release of three works by one of the pioneers of minimalism Steve Reich appears a few months before the composer celebrates his 80th birthday on 3rd October 2016. The three performances recorded here were given by members of the London Symphony Orchestra Percussion Ensemble led by Neil Percy – a consummate virtuoso – who for almost 20 years has been the LSO’s Principal Percussionist. ‘Clapping Music’ composed in 1972 is exactly what it says on the tin. Reich conceived the piece from a desire to compose music “that would need no instrument beyond the human body”. Beginning with a single rhythmic cell of 12 beats modelled on traditional African bell rhythms it uses Reich’s familiar phasing technique to explore the basic rhythmic pattern with mesmerising effect. Neil Percy and his LSO Co-Principal Sam Walton, deliver a faultless account of what must surely be a most challenging piece for performers. A year later in 1973 Reich composed his ‘Music for Pieces of Wood’ in which five performers play five sets of wood blocks (claves) tuned A, B, C#, D# and the D# an octave above. Though, unlike ‘Clapping Music’, the element of pitch is present, it is the interplay of the complex rhythmic patterns that captivates the listener. Neil Percy and Sam Walton are joined by Simon Crawford-Phillips, David Jackson and Antoine Bedewi to yield a performance of amazing precision and control of dynamics. The final and longest piece on this SACD is the ‘Sextet’ of 1985 for which Philip Moore joins the ensemble. While the first two works represent Reich in what might be considered to be his purest style, the ‘Sextet’ brings a wider range of instrumental sonorities into play in what is a more ambitious and colourful composition. The six players – four percussionists and two keyboard players doubling on piano and synthesizers – demonstrate their adroitness on a wide variety of instruments that include marimba, vibraphone, bass drum and crotales. The work’s five movements are played in an unbroken sequence that create an arch form ( ABCBA) and each becomes slower in tempo (and shorter) as the centre is reached. The limitations of most percussion instruments to provide sustaining pitches is overcome not only by the use of synthesizers but also the technique of sometimes bowing the vibraphones. The immediate accessibility of the ‘Sextet’ aided by the brilliance of the LSO Percussion Ensemble’s stunning playing will surely bring new converts to Reich’s archetypal and iconic oeuvre. Unlike most releases from LSO Live this one was not recorded in the Barbican but in LSO St Luke’s, an 18th-century Grade 1 listed Nicholas Hawksmoor church that was restored to become the home of the LSO’s community and music education programme. The recording (in DSD 128fs) vividly captures the clean acoustic of this venue with the 5.1 multi-channel mix adding just an extra degree of ambience to the sound. The only regret for admirers of Steve Reich’s particular brand of minimalism is that the whole programme lasts only 43 minutes, but as the performances and the recorded sound are so outstanding and LSO Live’s pricing so competitive there is little or nothing to complain about. Unreservedly recommended.