As much influenced by Purcell, Vivaldi, Beethoven, Schoenberg as he is by the Kinks, Led Zeppelin and punk music, saying that Max Richter is a difficult composer to categorise would be an understatement. Following his first album release in 2002, Richter has continuously garnered greater attention and respect, and his music has even featured in several major cinematic productions (Shutter Island and Waltz with Bashir to name but a few). It is perhaps in 2012, however, that Richter made the most noise, particularly within classical music circles. Entitled Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi, the Four Seasons, his album released on the Deutsche Grammaphon label made things quite clear: Max Richter definitely has courage, despite the many purists who deemed that, as Richter quotes, “painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa would have been less of a sacrilegious crime.”

Max Richter Ensemble, Paris © Julien Mignot | Philharmonie de Paris
Max Richter Ensemble, Paris
© Julien Mignot | Philharmonie de Paris

For many, Vivaldi has become associated with electricity, internet, gas, and other household utility problems: his Four Seasons have become the musical embodiment of waiting, as countless customers spend hours on hold, listening to a tinny and muffled rendition of what was once one of Vivaldi’s, and indeed the Baroque era’s, finest works. The 90s were filled with Nigel Kennedy’s “rock star” performances, but the work today has, for many, joined the list of “Works That Must Not Be Named”, alongside Pachelbel’s Canon. Until, that is, Max Richter got his hands on it, daring to do that which most composers would not dream of doing: reinventing a work that is so universally identifiable it borders on untouchable. Reinventing is perhaps not the right word, since Richter’s work (as stated in the work’s title) is that of “recomposition”, using the source material known by all as building blocks to build something new, whilst nonetheless bearing in mind its origins.

Max Richter Ensemble, Paris © Julien Mignot / Philharmonie de Paris
Max Richter Ensemble, Paris
© Julien Mignot / Philharmonie de Paris

As Richter and the 12 Ensemble arrived on stage, with Richter ready at the keys of both his piano and his laptops, it became clear this was not going to be any ordinary concert. Richter launched the first musical sample with his laptop, and the first notes of Vivaldi’s Spring gradually made themselves heard. Soloist Mari Samuelsen immediately captured the light Baroque feel of the original work, full of sharp and brisk trills, recalling the bright chirps of birds in the blossoming trees. As each movement progressed however, the sound evolved, becoming more full-bodied and passionate, the vibrato heavier, the bow strokes more energetic. Whether this was a particular trait of Samuelsen’s interpretation or a desire on Richter’s behalf is unclear, but it nevertheless made for an interesting progression throughout the work, distancing the listener even further from what we could expect upon hearing Vivaldi’s music. Though certain entries could have been tighter, it is hard to criticise Samuelsen’s overall performance, and indeed that of the 12 Ensemble. And what of Richter’s Seasons? I still felt the explosive joy of Spring, the heavy heat of Summer, the merriment of Autumn, and the biting cold of Winter. The imagery is still there, merely presented under a new and more modern guise. Sacrilege or not, Richter was nonetheless loudly praised for his performance and his work, and rightly so.

Before Richter set about recomposing Vivaldi, he produced in 2004 a series of short but beautiful movements, each inspired by short ideas or emotions, occasionally accompanied by a recitative of texts by Franz Kafka and the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz (originally recited by Tilda Swinton). Full of soft tones, meditative phrases, and simple piano melodies, the Blue Notebooks made for an extremely peaceful second half, marred only by the unfortunate technical issues of his laptop, preventing him and the Max Richter Ensemble from performing the movement Shadow Journal.

Perhaps Richter should have called an IT support helpline in order to quickly resolve the issue; then again, he would have been put on hold only be forced to listen yet again to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons

*****