Earlier this month, Steve Reich celebrated his 85th birthday. Il Colin Currie Group e Synergy Vocals are marking this landmark in the life of one of the greatest living composers with a European tour, which includes the first performances of his latest work, composed for them and jointly commissioned by a consortium of concert halls including the Southbank Centre.
Traveler’s Prayer was composed last year, begun before and completed during the pandemic. It’s a setting not of the Hebrew Traveller’s Prayer itself, but of three short Old Testament passages that are often added to it, and Reich sets them for four voices in long sinuous vocal lines, often doubled and coloured by the instrumental ensemble, and making extensive use of intertwining canons and their inversions and retrogrades. Reich has said that the music is “closer to Josquin des Prez than Stravinsky”, though the opening section for two tenors (which takes up half of the 16-minute work) does seem to hark back to late Stravinsky, especially to Threni. It’s a muted, rather contained piece, low on rhythmic energy, rooted in the same tonality throughout, and very different from anything Reich has composed before.
At the Festival Hall, the contrast between this almost static new work and most of Reich’s other music by was emphasised by the pieces with which Currie and his group framed it, two of them with strong London connections; there were the dense, dark harmonies and shifting tonality of Quartet, for two vibraphones and two pianos, which is dedicated to Currie, and the hyperactive brilliance of the dance score Runner, co-commissioned by the Royal Opera House. And to end there was one of Reich’s classics of the 1980s, Tehillim, the first work in which he explored his Jewish heritage, its psalm settings sounding rawer, less exquisite in Currie’s performance than when they used to be when performed by the composer’s own group, but as joyous and exhilarating as ever.