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Reich: The Desert Music, Three Movements / Jarvi, Chorus Sine Nomine, Tonkunstler Orchester, Niederosterreich

Reich / Chorus Sine Nomine / Tons / Jarvi
Release Date: 06/28/2011 
Label:  Chandos   Catalog #: 5091  
Composer:  Steve Reich
Conductor:  Kristjan Järvi
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Lower Austrian Tonkünstler OrchestraChorus Sine Nomine
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

REICH The Desert Music 1. 3 Movements Kristjan Järvi, cond; Lower Austrian Tonkünstler O; 1 Sine Nomine Ch CHANDOS 5091 (SACD 60:34 Text and Translation)

Like most collectors of Steve Reich’s recordings, I came to know his 1984 The Desert Music through the recording on Nonesuch conducted by Read more Michael Tilson Thomas, which, like the recording under consideration, uses the version for full orchestra. There is a chamber version, unrecorded as far as I know, and a revised chamber version on Cantaloupe (which adds in the brass of the orchestral version), which Robert Carl enthusiastically reviewed in Fanfare 26:3 and included on his 2003 Want List. In his review, Carl describes the evolution of the piece, and the composer’s assessment that the original orchestral version “was too bloated for the sound he desired to project.” Carl predicts that the 2001 chamber version is “probably a ‘final’ version of the piece.”

Perhaps so—Reich has most commonly written for chamber ensembles and may well feel more comfortable there—but this release may change his mind. In truth, I am not as taken either with the pared-down version or with the propulsive pop/jazzy style of the Cantaloupe performance and recording as Carl. (This is one of the few cases where I have found myself out of tune with my distinguished colleague’s recommendations.) The William Carlos Williams verses, and their central message of impending nuclear holocaust and the human priorities that drive us to self-destruction, demand weight and undercurrent as well as intensity. Ironically, the downside is that one can’t make out a lot of the text in the orchestral version, except for the important verses from “The Orchestra” providing the warning itself. One can understand more in the chamber version, but the prominent chorus of solo voices changes the essential nature of this work. More than the Cantaloupe, even more than the original Nonesuch recording, Kristjan Järvi and his superb musicians on this new recording integrate the amplified chorus into the large orchestra, creating a sound both otherworldly and deeply human. Whatever the original critical assessment of the first recording of the orchestral version—and it was mixed, as Carl points out—the ominous gravity, the energy of the insistent rhythmic pulse which suggests at times the passage of time, the richness of the tuned percussion integrated into the fuller, more varied orchestral sound, the relaxed inevitability of the unfolding of the work, the harrowing string simulation of sirens, and the starkness of the pivotal central movement is here most affecting, and a triumphant proof of the power of the original concept.

Three Movements for Orchestra , written two years later on a commission from the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, proves to be an ideal discmate for The Desert Music . Using the same orchestral forces, including divided strings to clarify antiphonal counterpoint, and a central core of tuned percussion placed forward between them, it shows Reich even more assured in writing for large orchestral forces. The three movements—fast, slow, and fast—are continuous, building to a jubilant conclusion. The layers of sound ebb and flow, creating myriad patterns that shift and overlap in arrays of color, texture, and rhythmic brilliance quite unlike the earlier austere works that are often associated with this composer. In a back-cover endorsement, Reich declares this the best recording of Three Movements that he has ever heard. Much as I like the only competitor for that title, the 1994 recording with Tilson Thomas again on Nonesuch, I have to agree. Järvi offers even greater variety of and attention to detail, a perception at times of three-dimensional depth, and in the second movement an impression of exotic ritual that is riveting.

All of this is facilitated by a stunningly fine recording, rich and detailed, with extraordinary solid bass, and a broad, deep soundstage. The orchestra and chorus are quite simply amazing. Excellent notes seal the deal. Not to be missed.

FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames
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Works on This Recording

Desert Music by Steve Reich
Conductor:  Kristjan Järvi
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Lower Austrian Tonkünstler Orchestra,  Chorus Sine Nomine
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1984; USA 
Three Movements by Steve Reich
Conductor:  Kristjan Järvi
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Lower Austrian Tonkünstler Orchestra,  Chorus Sine Nomine
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1986; USA 

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