Steve Reich Steve Reich: Triple Quartet and other...

CD REVIEWS

November 15, 2001|By Tim Smith

Steve Reich

Steve Reich: Triple Quartet and other works. Kronos Quartet; Dominic Frasca, electric guitarist; and others. (Nonesuch 79546-2)

Pundits who predicted that the musical style known as minimalism would quickly fade away have a lot of repeated chords to eat. Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams - the minimalist holy trinity - are still going strong, and their ideas about limited harmonic motion and rhythmic reiteration continue to influence many other composers.

An overview of Reich's distinctive brand of minimalism can be found on this compelling disc - the tightly woven, percussive patterns of 1967's Violin Phase (here performed in a 2001 rearrangement, Electric Guitar Phase); the more lyrical, joyous drive of 1977's Music for Large Ensemble and 1981's Vermont Counterpoint (here in a 2000 arrangement for MIDI marimbas as Tokyo/Vermont Counterpoint); the harmonically thicker, melodically intense Triple Quartet from 1999.

The latter work can be played by string orchestra, three string quartets or, as is done here, by one quartet and prerecorded tape. The Kronos Quartet demonstrates its typical meticulousness and expressive drive, digging into the darkly beautiful second movement with particular effectiveness.

The 15-minute-long Electric Guitar Phase, which also involves lots of overdubbing and chews over a tiny thematic fragment, is probably for die-hard minimalist fans only; Dominic Frasca gives the piece a determined workout. Nearly as long, Music for Large Ensemble is full of color and vibrancy; it receives stylish performance from two ensembles, Ossia and Alarm Will Sound, conducted by Alan Pierson. The playing suggests spontaneous outpourings rather than painstaking mastery of technical intricacies.

The computerized sonics of Tokyo/Vermont Counterpoint, realized by Mika Yoshida, delectably serve this buoyant score, originally written for flutes and piccolos. It's one more example of the staying power of Reich's imaginative art.

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J.S. Bach

Morimur: Music by J.S. Bach. Christoph Poppen, violinist; the Hilliard Ensemble. (ECM New Series 1765)

Currently generating brisk sales in Europe and this country, Morimur provides a riveting case of musical conjecture. Did Bach encode secret messages in his works for solo violin, especially the famous Chaconne from the D minor Partita? That's the theory put forward by violin professor Helga Thoene some years ago and intriguingly demonstrated in this recording from the ECM label.

Thoene hears several chorale tunes - Lutheran hymns - beneath the surface of the violin lines, a hidden harmonization. In the case of the Chaconne, the chorales add up to a requiem for Bach's first wife, Maria Barbara, Thoene argues. Christ lag in Todesbanden (Christ lies in the bonds of death) is particularly prevalent in this analysis, along with other hymns about death, sorrow and eternal refuge.

The superb Hilliard Ensemble - soprano Monika Mauch, countertenor David James, tenor John Potter, baritone Gordon Jones - sings the chorales simultaneously with Christoph Poppen's eloquent playing of the Chaconne on a baroque violin. The effect is somewhat like one of those photographs showing a ghostly figure that supposedly wasn't visible when the picture was taken.

It's hard to argue with Thoene's theory when you hear the choral music mesh so neatly, so hauntingly with the familiar violin notes. Maybe it's just a coincidence (like secret messages people are always finding in the Bible after coming up with the some sort of mathematical formula), but it makes a stunning impression.

The disc also offers a complete performance of the D minor Partita, each movement alternating with a chorale that Thoene believes to be melodically and/or harmonically related.

Obviously, the musical shadow Thoene has detected in Bach's creations need not be accepted as gospel. But, given Bach's known appreciation for numerical symbols in compositions and his use of his own name to create a tune, a deeper interest in coded messages is easy to believe. One thing is sure. After hearing Morimur (the term refers to the concept of gaining eternal life after death), it is impossible to hear this music the same way again.

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