Reich: The Desert Music; Three Movements

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LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: The Desert Music; Three Movements
PERFORMER: Chorus sine nomine; Tonkünstler Orchestra of Lower Austria/ Kristjan Järvi

The Desert Music received its UK premiere at the Proms on 29 July 1985 and I attended both the concert and the rehearsal that morning. The latter was an eye-opener where the behaviour of orchestral musicians was concerned. That’s another story (maybe) but in the notes to this release Reich recalls unhappy experiences with symphony orchestras involving ‘bored players… merely paying lip-service to a controversial area of contemporary music.’ That account could have had some bearing on the Financial Times’sreview of the work, which describes it as ‘steamed marshmallow, system-Liberace without the jewels or fun’.
In The Times Richard Morrison was more charitable, acknowledging the seductiveness of Reich’s style and technique, though questioning whether the music was strong enough to bear the weight of the serious content. The heart of the piece is a quotation from American poet William Carlos Williams: ‘Man has survived hitherto because he was too ignorant to know how to realise his wishes. Now that he can realise them, he must either change or perish.’
Michael Tilson Thomas’s recording of The Desert Music with Reich’s ensemble and the Brooklyn Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, and of Three Movements with the London Symphony Orchestra (both on Nonesuch) were very persuasive, but here Kristjan Järvi sets a new benchmark. These powerful readings infuse Reich’s New York vigour with loose-limbed elegance, yet give a menacing edge to the pulsating rhythms and dynamics. Järvi does full justice to the more lyrical antiphonal passages and, helped by the superbly detailed sound, maintains a clear focus on each of the piece’s structural details as well as keeping a firm grip on their sweeping trajectories. Barry Witherden