Quartet Quintet, the second album by the LSO Percussion Ensemble, was released last month, the new release featuring Gwilym Simcock. The CD starts with Steve Reich’s three-movement Quartet from 2013 for two pianos and two vibraphones, almost certainly the only commercially available live recording of the work in existence, and ends with the premiere recording of a specially commissioned five-movement work for piano and mallet ensemble by Gwilym Simcock.
This is a substantial disc which traverses a wide range of textures and moods. It has over 79 minutes of music in total, and also includes pieces by Chick Corea, Joe Locke and Makato Ozone.
The guiding force behind the group is Neil Percy, who is not just the Principal Percussionist of the London Symphony Orchestra, he is also Head of Timpani and Percussion at the Royal Academy of Music. And he doesn’t just work within these big structures, he was also resposible for setting up the LSO Percussion Ensemble, a small group which has performed in the UK and has also toured in Japan. The percussion ensemble has become increasingly active in commissioning new works and arrangements. Sebastian found out more:
For professional percussionists, solving problems that are hard for outsiders to understand always seems like a necessary part of life. The works on the LSO Percussion Ensemble’s new album Quartet Quintet presented particular logistical issues to overcome. In Steve Reich’s Quartet for two pianos and two vibraphones, for example, both of the pianos required to be tuned up to A=442.
And how did they overcome that problem? Neil Percy is clear: “Yamaha. Without having them on board we could not have put this together.” Yamaha has been an essential partner in the development of the ensemble throughout its existence. For example, on the group’s three-concert tour of Japan in 2018, as Percy explains, “they put everything in place.” And they did the same again for the early 2019 sessions for the second album. “Jeremy Smith even ensured that we had a piano tuner there for all of the sessions.”
The ensemble, a ‘mallet quartet’ was a project which Neil Percy has been keen to develop in the past few years. The ensemble’s first album was recorded in October 2015 and released in the summer of 2016. It consisted entirely of works by Steve Reich. The new album starts with another Reich work, and yet it is indicative of a direction the group has been taking. Quartet represents the jazzier side of Reich. Neil Percy remembers interviewing the composer and asking him about major influences: Bach, Stravinsky…and the jazz drummer Kenny Clarke. Percy feels a particular imperative for this work, and in particular for the outer movements: “It has to groove,” he says. And that was why he knew he wanted Gwilym Simcock to play the first piano part in Reich’s Quartet.
The move into a jazz direction is clear in the rest of the programme too. Joe Locke, who has often come over to the Royal Academy of Music to teach both percussion and jazz students has a delicate piece on the album, Her Sanctuary. “It was crying out to be arranged,” says Percy. There is also arrangements by a member of the group, Simon Carrington, of pieces by Makato Ozone and Chick Corea, both of which have had the blessing of the composers. And the most substantial piece is a five-movement work by Gwilym Simcock in which he tries to convey the “energy and joy” of groups like Weather Report, Yellowjackets and Steps Ahead, and also has a part for Neil Percy playing Hang drum.
The more one listens to the album, the more stylistic common threads appear. Makoto Ozone’s “Kato’s Revenge” has echoes of Corea tunes like “Armando’s Rumba,” for example. For a live concert, the absence of extraneous noise is extraordinary, and the hushed concentration of the second movement of the Reich and sections of Simcock’s piece are highly affecting. And then there is the velocity and excitement which this group of virtuosi can bring to the music. There are moments when things go superhumanly fast, such as the end of the Ozone. That is a moment when the mallets are – metaphorically rather than literally – flying.