London Chamber Orchestra: Minimalist

[London Chamber Orchestra - Minimalist]Back in the late ’80s, the London Chamber Orchestra recorded a series of albums on Virgin Classics, which then marketed them more like rock releases than classical.

Each album in the 9-disc series had distinctive, templated covers. The LCO moniker occupied a corner in big Helvetica type with an abstract image dominating the remaining surface. It was a far cry from the yellow label branding of Deustche Grammphone or the low-budget art of Naxos.

These albums are long out of print, the recordings butchered on various compiled reissues. The ensemble’s reading of Vivaldi’s concerti and Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante pop up on other EMI Classics releases.

One album has managed to maintain its integrity despite numerous reissues and cover changes: Minimalist. In fact, the album is scheduled for another reissue on Feb. 12, 2013.

Of the discs in that original series, Minimalist was the only one to feature modern music from American composers. At the time, major labels were finally coming around to minimalism, with Nonesuch cornering recorded premieres by Philip Glass, Steve Reich and John Adams.

Minimalist was one of the first albums not released by Nonesuch to focus on these three composers.

I had actually bought the album around the time it was released — as a Christmas gift for my piano teacher. I didn’t get around to buying a copy for myself till 2012, when I found an original Virgin Classics pressing at Silver Platters.

By then, 23 years had passed since that initial gifting. Back then, I had only listened to a scant number of works from each composer. Today, only two of the works were unfamiliar to me.

Minimalist was intended to be a crash course in the works of Glass, Reich and Adams, and it serves that purpose well. Although each composer has been tagged with the minimalist brand, their individual writing styles couldn’t be any more different.

Adams doesn’t go for the level of abstraction as Glass and Reich. Reich’s harmonic language is more adventurous than Glass or Adams, his rhythms more syncopated. But Glass is the most accessible, his harmonic and rhythmic language clearest of the three.

LCO selected the right works from each composer to highlight these differences.

Adams’ Shaker Loops strikes just the right balance between intellectual rhythmic exercise and programmatic storytelling. It’s certainly a good choice as an introduction to his output.

Reich’s Eight Lines highlights the signature syncopation that drives his work, while being just the right length to fit on a minimalist showcase.

Company is one of Glass’ most recorded works, and LCO jumped on that bandwagon early. It’s too bad so many other chamber orchestras followed in their wake. Thankfully, LCO also include Glass’ Façades.

The only odd man out is Englishman David Heath. He’s no minimalist, and the dissonance of his contribution, The Frontier, clashes with the harmonies of his American counterparts.

It’s also the most interesting work on the disc. There’s a bit of a rock attitude underpinning The Frontier, and it’s a nice contrast to the high-mindedness of the preceding works.

Despite that jarring addition — or maybe because of it — Minimalist hangs well together as an album. So well, in fact, it’s been immune to butchering. (Mostly — some of these recording appear on other EMI compilations.)

Looking back, I made the right choice giving this album to my piano teacher. I’d probably direct other curious listeners to it in the future.