As more ensembles perform and record Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians, its status as a minimalist masterpiece is increasingly affirmed. Ensemble Signal's 2015 release on Harmonia Mundi is one of several amazing performances that have matched Reich's original ECM New Series recording in technical brilliance and expressivity, and it has even earned the composer's approval for being, "…fast moving, spot on, and emotionally charged." Under the direction of Brad Lubman, Ensemble Signal maintains a relentlessly steady pulse and articulates the interlocking patterns with absolute precision, though the shifting tone colors are perhaps a little clearer in this performance than in other recordings. The microphone placement is not so close that individual instruments stand out, but there is enough separation of parts to allow some sense of direction and the orientation of the smaller sub-groups of pianos, xylophones, marimbas, strings, clarinets, and voices. This is a mesmerizing performance that will transfix listeners, and the music is so compelling that it will linger on well after the CD stops. Highly recommended.
If Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians is simply described in terms of its materials and organization – 11 chords followed by 11 pieces built on those chords – then it might seem utterly dry and monotonous. The actual music, though, is far from lackluster. When this recording was released in 1978, the impact on the new music scene was immediate and overwhelming. Anyone who saw potential in minimalism and had hoped for a major breakthrough piece found it here. The beauty of its pulsing added-note harmonies and the sustained power and precision of the performance were the music's salient features; and instead of the sterile, electronic sound usually associated with minimalism, the music's warm resonance was a welcome change. Yet repeated listening brought out a subtle and important shift in Reich's conception: the patterns were no longer static repetitions moving in and out of phase with each other, but were now flexible units that grew organically and changed incrementally over the course of the work.
The viola was Hindemith's instrument (though he could play almost any), and he wrote some of his most expressive chamber music for it. This two-disc set includes all four of Hindemith's sonatas for solo violin and the three for viola and piano. I prefer the wildness of Hindemith's earlier music to the sometimes arid calm of his later music, so listeners like myself who like Hindemith can have a feast here as most of these are early works. They are played with energy and passion by an outstanding violist and a fine pianist.