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on February 12, 2003
I've loved this music since it first appeared, back in the early '80s, and I second the praise that others have delivered about this recording. It has a clarity and immediacy missing from previous outings (the musicians were probably recorded in the multi-miked "pop" style rather than the style usually adopted for "classical" musicians). The percussion in Tehillim is snap-crackle-pop sharp, allowing the ear to carefully distinguish the sounds of the various percussion instruments, in comparison to the muddled sound of the Schoenberg Ensemble version. These percussionists have this music in their blood. They are tremendously well-rehearsed, and their youthful stamina pays off in the momentum they maintain throughout the performances. An extra string quartet in Tehillim allows melodies and sustained chords to assume more prominence.
Meanwhile, the singers' voices in The Desert Music are more individually characterized than before, allowing you to hear the text more clearly in voices that are dramatically free of any vibrato whatsoever, giving the singing a pure but momentous sound. I agree that the larger body of strings used in MTT's version is missed in the opening of the last movement, but otherwise I prefer the fiddlers in this version for their cracker jack playing. Quicker tempos accentuate the exuberance of Reich's syncopations. (This performance shaves 5 minutes off MTT's version.)
If I could only have one version of these pieces this would be the one I would buy. Actually, this recording is a better deal than what is currently available: The Desert Music on Nonesuch is unaccompanied by a second work, a situation which is also true of Tehillim on ECM. The Tehillim on Nonesuch is coupled with Three Movements for Orchestra, an uninteresting work whose last movement is a poor re-hash of the last movement of Sextet (a far superior work to the Three Movements).
If more youthful, classically-trained ensembles played like this, there would be few handwringing discussions about "the future of classical music." Buy this disc.
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on November 30, 2002
Although entirely persuaded by the stimulating customer reviews of this magical disc, I'm inclined to regard it as a companion to, rather than an "improvement" on, Tilson-Thomas's recording of "The Desert Music". Certainly, Pierson's daring tempos and the crystal-clear articulation of his remarkable young players make for a radically more detailed sound-frame (although I wondered whether the voices were perhaps too forwardly placed). The "chamber" reduction has a wonderful intimacy and it is virtually impossible to find fault with such a perceptive, intellectually cogent performance.
And yet I do miss some of the craggy grandeur of Tilson-Thomas's reading. Under his direction, the final (fast) section seems to be imbued with a curious, unearthly luminosity. There is also a ripeness of articulation (particularly in the brass at key moments) not found in the brighter, more analytical new recording.
So, if we can happily oscillate between Klemperer and Eliot-Gardiner in Beethoven (well, I can, but I drink a lot), why can't we do the same with Tilson-Thomas and Pierson in Reich?
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on December 2, 2002
Here we have the two best works (IMO) that Steve Reich has composed performed with a fresh interpretation.
I still prefer the premier recording of Tehillim that was released on the ECM label. This version is improved with greater transparency, a faster tempo, crisp recording and a tighter performance overall. However there is just something missing here in that I find the ECM performance just to be more exciting overall. The vocalists on the ECM recording convey more passion in my opinion. Still this is a fine re-interpretation of Tehillim.
The new recording of the Desert Music is much improved over the original recording done by Michael Tilson Thomas. Not that MTT's recording is bad mind you - quite the opposite. I was in love with the Desert Music, believing that it was (is) Reich's best work, and that was the MTT original recording that I was in love with. However, this new interpretation just makes a great work even better. The tempo is much faster which enhances the impact of the work and just seems to fit the music better than the more leisurely pace set by MTT. Also the smaller forces involved bring more clarity to the score.
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on December 30, 2002
The recording of Tehillim on this CD is the best I've heard, an absolute tour de force for the instrumentalists and especially the singers. The tempi are manipulated to increase the dramatic effect, and the balance is immaculate. The recording quality of this performance is far better than the original ECM recording, any splice-points having been eliminated. This is the best recording out there!
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VINE VOICEon September 29, 2006
This album brings together two works written by American minimalist composer Steve Reich in the early 1980's including Tehillim (1981) and The Desert Music (1984). As they appear on this album, Tehillim was performed by the ensemble Ossia, while The Desert Music was performed by Alarm will Sound and Ossia. Both pieces were recorded sometime around 1999-2002 and were directed by Alan Pierson. In general, this is fantastic minimalism and I especially appreciate its austere, acoustic qualities.

The musicians on this album are far too numerous to mention individually, but the dominant instruments include the human voice, mallet instruments, and string bass (mostly bowed parts), in addition to a host of woodwinds, strings, brass, and keyboards (even though a prog rock fan, I have to admit that the absence of electric instruments is a refreshing change of pace). Steve's pieces require a great deal of technical ability, and there are some dazzlingly intricate group vocal parts on Telhillim, although the performances throughout are top shelf.

Tehillim itself is written in four movements principally for voice (high soprano, lyric sopranos, and an alto) although other instruments such as the string bass and various percussion instruments are featured. The piece consists largely of ostinato networks performed by the singers; is extremely long (30'51"); and possesses a subtle rhythmic element. The Desert Music (43'47") is somewhat different and is presented in (at least I think so) an arch form (A-B-C-B-A). The seven movements are pretty much differentiated by tempo. Although male and female voices are featured on this piece, the other instruments are given equal weight (not to mention that there are more instrumental passages), giving this piece a fuller sound than the comparatively stripped down Tehillim. The rhythmic element is also more robust.

This music gets quite brooding and contemplative at times. There is also a meditative quality to the music, which is strengthened by the repeated melodies and the sheer length of each piece. The sound quality of this recording is also fairly impressive.

All in all this is an incredible work of minimalism and has to be one of the more rewarding genres that I have discovered as of late. In that this is my first exposure to the works of Steve Reich, I can not say anything about how these new performances compare to the originals, although I have to say that I was very impressed by the playing. Another recording by Steve Reich that I found to be enjoyable is City Life (1996).
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on September 23, 2002
You may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but sometimes bringing a frisky new puppy home can coax a few spectacular post-geriatric Frisbee leaps out of an elder canine. Something like that appears to be happening to Steve Reich, whose support of the wunderkind conductor Alan Pierson, has just produced what is likely to remain for a long time the definitive recording of Reich's two choral masterpieces--Tahillim and The Desert Music (Cantaloupe CA21009).
Both Tehillim and The Desert Music are deeply felt personal works that reflect Reich's ongoing quest to marry music to spirituality in both religious and everyday life. Tehillim is a Hebrew setting of four Psalms while The Desert Music takes its texts--including a haunting reflection on Hiroshima--from the poet William Carlos Williams. Without sacrificing the strong rhythmic pulses that are the heart of Reich's music, Pierson draws a purity of tone from his performers that frees the texts from the somewhat secondary and muddy place they held in previous recordings. The result is a complete and satisfying musical experience--exuberant, mesmerizing and literate. These performances are labors of love and it shows through in every note.
What makes them even more remarkable is that they are performed not by some well established new music group but by Ossia, a student ensemble from the Eastman School of Music, abetted by a group of recent Eastman graduates called Alarm Will Sound--all led by Pierson, who was barely out of Pampers when the 65-year-old Reich wrote Tahillim in 1981 and The Desert Music in 1984. In fact, young Pierson, who graduated from MIT with a degree in physics, is just now wrapping up his doctoral studies in conducting at Eastman.
To say that this release completely blows away Michael Tilson Thomas' earlier versions of both works is not to diminish MTT but to simply point out how good Pierson really is. He has an innate ability to get into the mind of the composers he likes and is exceptionally adept drawing extraordinary performances out of blue collar players.
I had a first-hand preview of this recording back in May when Pierson played both these pieces with the same groups at Miller Theater. Of that performance, my partner Duane Grant, publisher of Sequenza21.com/The Contemporary Classical Music Weekly wrote: "As conductor, interpreter and the re-orchestrator Pierson infused the music with spirit and energy. He knows the music and knows what he is doing. He is someone to watch... I walked away thinking that I had heard and seen something really remarkable."
To be absolutely fair to Tilson Thomas, Pierson has been studying and researching both Reich pieces for more than two years now and Ossia and Alarm Will Sound have performed them publicly on numerous occasions. In addition, dozens of hours have obviously been spent in rehearsals--a benefit of using a student ensemble whose members don't march to the beat of a musicians union time clock.
Equally important in making comparisons is the fact that Tilson Thomas premiered and recorded The Desert Music in an orchestral version. Reich quickly revised it for chamber ensemble and keyboards.
Although the orchestral version hasn't been performed since and the chamber version has become very popular, this Cantaloupe release is the premiere recording of the chamber piece. In what can only be described as new pup chutzpah, Pierson even suggested some "improvements" to Reich--more brass, no keyboards--to which the old dog agreed.
Pierson also provided some revisions--more strings and other small but significant alterations-to Music for Large Ensemble, which he conducted on the recent Triple Quartet recording. (Nonesuch - #79546)
All in all, there is a lot to admire here-the emergence of brilliant young conductor; further evidence that Cantaloupe is turning out the most provocative and exciting new music on the classical CD market today, and reaffirmation that Steve Reich is not only one of our greatest living composers but a cagey old Rover who is not ready for the canine retirement home just yet.
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on September 20, 2002
This is a beautiful recording, highly recommended for all Reich lovers and those who want to get an idea of his music. I never would have believed that I could like any version of The Desert Music better than the Michael Tilson Thomas full orchestra/choir recording, but I was quite mistaken. The composer tries to avoid large forces and goes for the intimacy and clarity of fewer voices per part (this means both the choir and the orchestra), and this reworking really does suit his music much better. This album is masterfully produced and excellently balanced. Alan Pierson is a gifted interpreter of Reich's music (see also Music for a Large Ensemble, on the Nonesuch album with Triple Quartet), and we hope to hear more from him and this ensemble. P.S. I, too, was able to hear the live performance last year in NYC!
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on October 7, 2002
Steve Reich has said of this recording:

"A truly outstanding ensemble. Their recording of Tehillim is an absolute knockout...and this recording sets the standard for how The Desert Music is to be performed. Alan Pierson brings a new generation of expertise and energy that is clearly heard in the faster tempos used throughout."

This is definitely a must-have recording for Reich fans - even if you own previous versions of these pieces. It's an (unfortunately all to rare) opportunity to hear a great composer's works prepared under the most ideal circumstances he could ask for - countless hours of rehearsal time by some of America's most brilliant, energetic and virtuosic young players, led by an ardent Reich lover and talented interpreter.
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on November 10, 2003
It seems superfluous to pile-on to all this praise, but in this case it's well deserved. I too was lucky enough to be in the audience at Miller Theatre the night these bold interpretations were "released" from their birthing place at Eastman into NYC and the rest of the world. It was an electrifying moment, which makes sense considering the high energy at this live event which immediately followed the recording sessions. And that same joyful energy is present on the disc for everyone who didn't witness the exuberance (and colorful appearance) of the performers that night.
In fact, Alan's interpretations weren't just birthed at Eastman -- they began years before in other places, and here is the shining result. Rhythm that bounces out of the box from the first note, voices and instruments perfectly in tune with incredible inflection (non vibrato and tinged with both classical and jazz sensibility), unprecedented brisk tempi (putting into new contrast Reich's exquisitely frozen slow movements), and a jaw-dropping sense of dance energy throughout. The level of swing going on here is contagious but clear and unforced, so that when that extra drive over the top is needed for climactic moments, it's there in shocking proportion yet still in control. Just phenomenal. They almost sound like new pieces now, or a new way of hearing Reich that perhaps was only possible a few generations later.
Reich's revisions are wonderful. I never once missed the extra brass and strings from the old Desert Music -- all the same gestures are there but are allowed to move and breathe like never before. I agree there's something very special about that old Tehillim on ECM, but this new one is so different in character and so winsome, you can't help but be glad it's here. The composer himself happily stated that night, "these guys blow my group out of the water," which if you're familiar with his ensemble is saying *a hell of a lot*. My only complaint is the inexplicable absence of Alan's excellent and thorough program notes, which are available only on the Cantaloupe site. But don't let that stop you -- print out the notes, snarf up this disc, and be amazed.
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on November 12, 2002
I concur with the other reviewers' enthusiasm here. I first heard "Tehillim" in college 20 years ago when it was required (!) for a core curriculum arts-appreciation course; a friend of mine bought the LP immediately and we almost wore it out, we liked this so much. I've had the Schoenberg Ensemble's CD of "Tehillim" for a while, too.
And I've had the Tilson Thomas recording of "Desert Music" since the beginning (when new on LP, and then bought it again on CD). Terrific.
This new one is as good as (or better than) all those; the clarity in "Desert Music" is extraordinary in this chamber version. The first few times through, I missed the fuller sound of the orchestra and chorus, having been so accustomed to them in the other recording. But the piece works beautifully this way, and I think the emotional impact is even greater overall. Bravo! The slow movement in "Tehillim" is another especially good part of this recording.
My main reason for writing here is to point out that the program notes are also excellent: five full pages about the works, and another page about the performers. I printed them from Cantaloupe's web site (the address is on the back of the CD case).
My only complaint, very minor, is with the graphic design of the packaging. The foldout card is hard to read, with small white text on bright red. (The notes on the web site are also hard to read, with strange color choices, but they look OK when printed in plain black and white!) I'm not sure that the bright red matches the feeling of these works, anyway...or maybe I'm just too accustomed to the original "Tehillim" packaging (a gorgeous blue). Perhaps they're trying to appeal to a different audience now, but the design could have been more classy, less like pop.
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