Reich: You Are (Variations)

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Reich
LABELS: Nonesuch
ALBUM TITLE: You Are (Variations)
WORKS: You Are (Variations)
PERFORMER: Los Angeles Master Chorale/Grant Gershon; Maya Beiser (cello)
CATALOGUE NO: 7559 798 912
As titles go, You Are (Variations) doesn’t exactly set the pulse racing – but then Steve Reich has never been much good at fashioning clever titles (which for me is definitely a point in his favour). This new piece, premiered in 2004, is a setting of four texts of gnomic profundity; the first, from the writings of an 18th-century rabbi, says ‘You are wherever your thoughts are’ (thus the title). The others are equally short, and yet Reich fashions a piece of 28 minutes from them by stretching each word out in long notes, against which the ensemble of pianos and percussion and strings hammers away with dark intensity. The piece may not break new ground, but it is massively impressive. The combination of the deliberately flat vocal sounds and the dancing rhythms has an atavistic quality, as if Reich were obeying the ancient Biblical injunction to ‘praise God in song and dance’.

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It’s a quality perfectly captured in this recording. Much of the music’s appeal lies in the tiny incremental changes in the repeating patterns, which are captured here with exemplary clarity. At first I wished the voices were more vividly expressive and more prominent in the mix. But eventually it became clear that their stifled, almost suppressed feeling is an essential part of the music’s meaning. Like Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms (a piece almost quoted by Reich at one point) this music expresses a sense of reverence and seriousness through submission and discipline. ‘Letting go’ is out of the question. It was almost a relief to move from this to the straightforward dancing energy of Cello Counterpoint, beautifully recorded on the same CD by cellist Maya Beiser. Ivan Hewett