sat 19/08/2017

Bryars and Reich, London Philharmonic Orchestra, RFH | reviews, news & interviews

Bryars and Reich, London Philharmonic Orchestra, RFH

Bryars and Reich, London Philharmonic Orchestra, RFH

Excitement and emotion in an evening of minimalist classics

Steve Reich in New York

In 1970, documentary maker Alan Power interviewed homeless people in the Elephant and Castle area of London. Rejected footage found its way to composer Gavin Bryars, including a short clip of an old man singing a snatch of a religious song. This became the basis of the minimalist classic Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, performed by members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday.

The old man’s 25-second song is looped and faded in on speakers. Gradually the orchestra adds a simple chordal accompaniment that grows in volume, before ultimately fading away again. The idea is simple, the result very affecting.

Bryars’s original version of the piece was the first release on Brian Eno’s cult Obscure record label in 1975. Its duration – 25 minutes – was dictated by the LP format. In 1993 the composer (pictured below by Doug Marke) made an extended CD-length 74 minutes version, an abomination featuring Tom Waits singing along with the old man.

The LPO take on it combined the two versions. The duration was the original 25 minutes but the content – Tom Waits aside – was that of the later version, where the simple repetitions of the orchestral material are replaced with developing and changing interpretations of the underlying harmony.

Although a composer is of course allowed to do what he wants with his own music, and notwithstanding the fact that I still found the performance moving and profound, I can’t help feeling that in departing from the purity of the original conception, Bryars has somehow weakened it. I would advocate the 1975 version over this one in all but one respect: I liked the way that here the music – four solo violins – carried on playing after the vocal had been faded out, as if accompanying a ghost.

First on the programme was another early Bryars work for tape and ensemble, The Sinking of the Titanic. Here voices, sounds and textures overlay live instruments playing slow fragments of the hymn-tunes that were reportedly played as the Titanic sank. This piece has also changed considerably since its earliest iteration on the same LP as Jesus’ Blood in 1975. And again, the effect of the early version is watered down by the revision. As the conception has become more complex, the impact is reduced.

Both these performances are hard to review in conventional terms. There was no conductor to admire or not. The music doesn’t admit the idea of interpretation. And there are negligable technical demands to be impressed by. The players of the LPO were appropriately understated, with some subtle tuba playing and sensitive viola playing at the end of The Sinking of the Titanic by Gregory Aronovich and Susanne Martens. But otherwise they just got out of the way, which was the best thing they could have done.

At one point, three players were simultaneously pounding away at the same marimba from different angles

The technical fireworks came after the interval, in the form of another, altogether different, minimalist classic. In Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians the stasis and sobriety of Bryars was succeeded by a bristling, pulsating tour de force of punchy rhythms and driving ostinatos.

The technical demands on the players are extraordinary as they circulate between instruments – at one point, three players were simultaneously pounding away at the same marimba from different angles, miraculously avoiding clashing sticks. The choreography has something of a non-religious ritual about it, the players co-operating like bees in a hive, but with moments of individual brilliance emerging from the communal texture.

An hour-long summary of all Reich’s early technical devices, it is probably his masterpiece. As with the Bryars, there is no room for interpretation: the music is an object to be realised as faithfully as possible. In this case the notes were very accurate (expecting absolute perfection here would be unreasonable) and the energy and commitment of the performers inspiring, greeted by the audience with an immediate standing ovation.

The Reich is a bristling, pulsating tour de force of punchy rhythms and driving ostinatos

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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