Drumming at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1

02.18.10
Colin Currie
Times Online (U.K.)

By Neil Fisher

Live performances of Steve Reich’s 1971 Drumming — a touchstone for percussionists and Reich devotees alike — remain rare. Indeed, that was the main reason why Colin Currie set up his virtuoso band of musicians, the Colin Currie Group, itself born to the hypnotic strains of Drumming back in 2006 at the Proms and accompanied then, as at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, by two specialist singers from Synergy Vocals.

But if that performance had the relentless power of an arena spectacle, this one felt decidedly more intimate, taking the listener deeper into Reich’s sound world. And it’s not a world without the charm and nuance of the chamber music that more usually occupies the QEH, at least not when performed with this degree of finesse and moment-by-moment satisfaction from its participants.

Of course, as a listener you cannot hop from moment to moment in Drumming. The work, which can take anything between 55 and 75 minutes (this one chose a benign but precise 70) is like one long piece of elastic, stretching and unstretching as different tensions are applied. Colour builds up through the addition or subtraction of volume, the picking up or slowing down of pace. When the miracle happens of a change of instrument — bongo drum to marimba, marimba to glockenspiel — the short handovers force your ear to gauge the precise and thrilling change in timbre. When the three remaining musicians — two vocalists and a piccolo — fold in, their purpose is not to add layers but to pick them out from the ether. Soon you aren’t sure whether they’re even sounding or not. Welcome to Minimalism.

But it’s the implicit tension in Drumming, between the exactitude of the writing and its exhilarating release, that makes it work. Currie’s group recognised this, tweaking that elastic with the joy of musicianship rather than mechanical precision. Different personalities rose to the challenge — Richard Benjafield all controlling serenity, Joby Burgess’s body pulsing and face beaming as he struck with the mallets. Sure, you space out, trip out, even switch off, when you listen to Drumming. But here at least there was always plenty to plug you right back in. No wonder the composer himself, taking his bow at the end, looked so pleased.