Voices of 9/11, turned to music of stark power

Composer Steve Reich Composer Steve Reich (Reuters / File)
September 4, 2011

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STEVE REICH: “WTC 9/11’’ and other works Kronos Quartet Nonesuch The musical memorials to 9/11 are still arriving but, in the end, how many will match the dark power of Steve Reich’s “WTC 9/11,’’ finally here in a recording by the Kronos Quartet? It’s a shame that the release of this work itself has been overshadowed by a tempest over its original cover art - a photograph of the plane heading for the second tower - images of which appeared long before the music itself was available to the public. Responding to the controversy, Reich and Nonesuch have now chosen to retract the original cover, which had been understandably attacked for putting an iconic 9/11 image to commercial use.

The piece’s concept is deceptively simple: recounting the tragedy through sampled voices, taken from those who responded to the attack in real time (air traffic controllers, FDNY officers), neighborhood residents, and those who cared for the victims afterward, reciting psalms while keeping watch over the bodies of the dead. As he did with “Different Trains,’’ Reich generates the musical material directly from the sampled voices, and it’s the rigor and directness of the voice-music connection - and the apparent lack of artifice - that makes for the work’s stark power.

The music feels devoid of kitsch or the various clichés of memorialization, and instead begins with a terse directness: We hear the repeated ominous pulsing of a phone that has been left off the hook, immediately picked up by the violins, and then the sampled voices begin. By the third and final movement, the harmonies grow more open and expansive but even here, the feeling is less of consolation on offer than of mourning rituals collected as found objects and mirrored in music.

The album, which also includes Reich’s “Mallet Quartet’’ with So Percussion and “Dance Patterns,’’ is now due out Sept. 20, but the 9/11 work will be available digitally on Tuesday.


BEETHOVEN: Diabelli Variations

Paul Lewis, piano Harmonia Mundi Having recorded all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas and concertos - and still not 40 years old - the British pianist Paul Lewis reinforces his Beethovenian credentials with this account of the Diabelli Variations, the composer’s deconstruction of a trivial little waltz into 33 variations of astonishing depth. It’s instructive to compare Lewis’s version with Rudolf Serkin’s classic 1957 recording of the Diabellis. Serkin made the variations into something rough and powerful, every detail standing out in bold relief, and the result was to make the piece seem monumental, even intimidating.

Lewis, by contrast, turns in a performance of lesser extremes but greater cohesion. Once you get beyond the brusque statement of Diabelli’s theme, he gives individual variations more opportunity to breathe and develop, and ties them together thanks to careful attention to pacing and tempo. Dynamics are somewhat curtailed but truer to the idea of the piece as a carefully structured yet still dramatic whole. Serkin hits you over the head with the Diabellis’ power; Lewis elucidates it, calmly but no less winningly.

Even the 32d variation, a gnarled, angular fugue, sounds unusually elegant. The three minor-key variations that precede it create a sonatina of tragic poignance. And the conclusion sounds not like the final stage of an exhausting journey but like the graceful minuet that it is, pregnant with further possibilities.


VICTORIA: “TRAHE ME POST TE’’ MOTET AND MASS James O’Donnell, conductor Choir of Westminster Cathedral Helios

Sixteenth-century Spanish master of polyphony Tomás Luis de Victoria published no secular music, but you could easily be fooled by the motet and parody Mass that form the centerpiece of this welcome Helios reissue of a 1994 Hyperion recording. The words of the motet - “Trahe me post te, et curremus/ in odorem unguentorum tuorum’’ (“Draw me after you, and we will run/ into the fragrance of your ointments’’) - are from the Song of Songs, and their heady scent finds its way into the Mass, as well.

Victoria is like Palestrina with a few more thorns, and James O’Donnell and the Choir of Westminster Cathedral treat his music like a formal garden, one glory unfolding after another at an unhurried tempo that animates only when the composer lilts into triple time, as in the “Resurrexit’’ of the Credo. The Agnus Dei is so lush and stately, it’s the aural counterpart to Jan van Eyck’s “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.’’

Filling out the disc is a quintet of Victoria pieces addressed to the Virgin Mary: “Alma redemptoris mater,’’ “Ave regina,’’ “Regina caeli laetare,’’ “Salve regina,’’ and the eight-part “Magnificat.’’ All but the “Ave regina’’ turn up on the Regis label’s two-disc Victoria set from Harry Christophers and the Sixteen, who, with what sound like smaller forces and a less resonant acoustic, are the lily to Westminster’s rose, clearer in enunciation and more fervent in affect. You can’t go wrong either way. For the “Trahe me post te’’ motet and Mass, however, this is your only recorded choice. Pass the perfume.