Music for Ensemble and Orchestra (2018)
Los Angeles Philharmonic / Susanna Mälkki
Nonesuch 7559791018 [35’25”]
Producer Dmitriy Lipay, Engineer Alexander Lipay
Recorded 1-4 November 2018 (Music for Ensemble and Orchestra), 6-7 November 2021 (Runner), Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, CA
reviewed by Ben Hogwood
What’s the story?
It is best to let Steve Reich himself tell the story of these two closely related orchestral pieces. Runner, he says, is ‘for a large ensemble of winds, percussion, pianos, and strings. While the tempo remains more or less constant, there are five movements, played without pause, that are based on different note durations. First, even sixteenths, then irregularly accented eighths, then a very slowed-down version of the standard bell pattern from Ghana in quarters, fourth a return to the irregularly accented eighths, and finally a return to the sixteenths but now played as pulses by the winds for as long as a breath will comfortably sustain them. The title was suggested by the rapid opening and my awareness that, like a runner, I would have to pace the piece to reach a successful conclusion.’
Meanwhile its companion, the Music for Ensemble and Orchestra, is in effect Runner 2. It is described by Reich as ‘an extension of the Baroque concerto grosso where there is more than one soloist. Here there are twenty soloists – all regular members of the orchestra, including the first stand strings and winds, as well as two vibraphones and two pianos. The piece is in five movements, though the tempo never changes, only the note value of the constant pulse in the pianos. Thus, an arch form: sixteenths, eighths, quarters, eighths, sixteenths. Music for Ensemble and Orchestra is modelled on my Runner, which has the same five movement form’.
The recording marks the first foray of both the Los Angeles Philharmonic and conductor Susanna Mälkki into the music of Reich in recorded form.
What’s the music like?
Reich clearly enjoyed writing these pieces, as he tells David Lang in the liner notes for this release. The quick tempo means that as the starting gun fires, Runner is immediately into its stride with brisk music and rich colours. When the tempo marking halves to become Eighths, and then Quarters, the slower music is beautifully managed through sustained notes, pulling out the tension. The piano and vibraphones come through beautifully here, while the harmonies continue to negotiate new corners and scenery as a runner would do. The feeling persists, though, that Reich is at his happiest in the music of Sixteenths, where the busy conversations of the woodwind and the bell tolls of the vibraphones give the music impressive stature. The piece ends quickly, with one of the composer’s trademark ‘fades’.
Music for Ensemble and Orchestra feels weightier in its own Sixteenths section starts, pianos oscillating and strings gathering in hymn-like unison before the pianos create an impressive grandeur with their sustained low notes. Reich’s command of the orchestra is immensely assured, more so than it was in earlier works such as the Variations for wind, strings and keyboards or The Four Sections, but never losing the luminosity of those works, nor their capacity to pan out into larger spaces.
The Eighths section is the most emotionally powerful music yet, with large scale harmonies that move freely between weighted dissonance and brief consonance, the latter appearing like shafts of light in the music. Quarters brings forward the choirs of woodwind, their distinctive motif alternating with the piano, before the percussive instruments drive Eighths to greater heights, pianos chiming with the vibraphones. In typical Reich fashion the acceleration from Eighths to Sixteenths is both seamless and thrilling, the clarinets pushing to the front as the music gathers itself for the finish. Then just as suddenly – and seamlessly – the bottom drops away and the figures float away like birds on the wing, all treble and no bass.
Does it all work?
It does. The performances from the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Susanna Mälkki are of a uniformly high degree, and the writing is subtly complex – meaning that Reich’s workings reward close inspection, but that the overall whole is beautifully realised and works well even in the middle foreground for the listener.
Is it recommended?
Of course. Steve Reich is a composer where nearly every move he makes is captured on record, to our advantage – and this pair of works, representing one of his most recently published chapters, are typically rewarding listening.