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LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Music for 18 Musicians
PERFORMER: Ensemble Signal/Brad Lubman

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It’s fascinating when a performance tradition of a relatively new work begins to evolve. I say new, but Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians (1974-76) is nearing 40. Since Reich’s own pioneering recording of that seminal work (on Nonesuch) there have been at least five other recordings before this one. The young musicians in Ensemble Signal weren’t even born when it was composed, though they’re directed by Reich’s colleague Brad Lubman. They prepared it for the 2014 Big Ears Festival, followed by this recording (the seventh in the piece’s history): the result is a fast, sharply focused achievement that flies past barely touching the ground. One cannot help but be staggered by the skill of musicians who wear its arduous repetitions so apparently effortlessly, and succeed in lending it a sense of free-wheeling fantasy too.

What do we lose? Certainly some of the emotional weight of bass clarinet parts underpinning the first and last Pulses sections: where, in Reich’s own recording, they burdened the long-breathed lines with something intangibly melancholy, at this faster speed we seem to lack an undertow. While the performance as a whole is dynamic and minutely calibrated, there’s something undeniably more funky about the dancing lines of Section VIII; after all, breakbeats have speeded everything up since 1976. The sense of drag and dissolution on Reich’s version in Section XI isn’t as pronounced, since the clarinets are so precisely synchronised.

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Still, a sense of catharsis comes powerfully through the final recapitulation, waves of lower pitches swimming in and out of view. It might be said, this is Reich for the 21st century. Helen Wallace