Some of Steve Reich's orchestral works are among his most impressive achievements, but they are rarely performed or recorded because of their difficulty, so it's good to have distinguished ensembles like Tonkünstler-Orchester and Chorus sine nomine, led by Kristjan Järvi, offer new interpretations of The Desert Music and Three Movements for orchestra. The producers wisely put Three Movements first on the disc, even though it was written later. It's a wonderfully attractive composition that demonstrates how well Reich's distinctive sound and compositional devices can be adapted for a traditional orchestra. The large-scale antiphonal effects he can achieve with an ensemble of this size when its players are spatially separated reach a level of drama not possible with groups the size of his own ensemble. The grandeur of the massive slabs of sound rapidly ricocheting back and forth in space can be thrilling. It's in The Desert Music (1984), though, a five-movement setting of texts by William Carlos Williams for chorus and orchestra, that Reich's writing achieves a brilliance -- both in technique and inspiration -- that could hardly have been anticipated by his previous work, as superb as much of it is. His use of the orchestra and the chorus is simply dazzling. By using the chorus instrumentally, doubling orchestral lines (while rhythmically chanting the syllable "de," as at the opening of the piece), he creates intriguing new colors. His melodic material is especially memorable, and when it is layered over itself in the close canons that are a staple of Reich's writing, the saturated textures have an intoxicating rhythmic buoyancy. The second half of the first movement, and the beginning of the third movement, for instance, suggest an ever-expanding crowd of ecstatic dancers, all moving independently to their own rhythms. Reich selects texts by Williams that are aphoristic but profound, rich with veins of meaning. His handling of the texts illuminates the message of the poetry and subtly deepens it by creating further layers of associations. (One of the benefits of applying minimalist patterns of repetition to vocal music is that the texts are repeated often enough that audiences can usually eventually catch their meaning.)
The orchestral and vocal performances are mostly very good: crisp, precise, and rhythmically bouncy. A glaring exception is an exposed section in the third movement where the uncharacteristic sluggishness of the strings' entrances muddies the complex canonic texture. The chorus performs the daunting score strongly and securely. The English pronunciation is sometimes a little dicey; hearing the word "the" sung with the wrong vowel sound, repeated dozens, maybe hundreds of times, at a rapid speed, can be wearing. The hybrid SACD has excellent stereo definition, a crucial quality for this kind of music in which spatial clarity is an essential element, and the sound is always full, clean, and spacious. The Desert Music is a piece where orchestral and choral balance is especially tricky, particularly in the sections where the singers are doubling the instrumental lines. The singers here sound a little remote in those sections, so the distinctiveness of their contribution to the overall texture is minimized. In spite of some flaws, this is a CD that should appeal to anyone who loves Reich's work or new choral and orchestral music.