Review: Max Richter – Recomposed

Album: Recomposed
Artist: Max Richter
Released: 31 August 2012


Conceptually, reinterpreting Vivaldi into “modern” terms and succeeding is not just a composer’s nightmare, but also an outright musical iconostasis bordering on blasphemy. Reinterpreting his Four Seasons suite, then–a definitive monument of the Baroque era, not to mention a milestone of artistic achievement–would be virtually unthinkable. That being said, British composer Max Richter has accomplished a titanic feat with his Recomposed, a masterfully-writ and beautifully-executed postmodern adaptation of Vivaldi’s classic.

Across Recomposed’s 13 tracks, spanning a total run time of about 45 minutes, Richter manages to sift through the colossus that is the original Four Seasons and illuminate the handful of hastily-sketched dots and lines that form the crux of Vivaldi’s construction, reweaving them into a wholly different tapestry. The result is a magnificent collage of vignettes and threads set against a reimagined backdrop that anyone with the most passing knowledge of Vivaldi’s original can immediately connect with while appreciating change. And while Richter’s interpretation consciously and significantly departs enough from the original to deter the most ardent purists, it is one that most others will welcome with open arms.

Structurally, Recomposed is identical to the original. Each “season” is about 10 minutes long, and, in the fashion of the original, chronicles the four seasons. Like the original, it is written for strings (led by violinist Daniel Hope), though Richter has added touches of electronic ambience throughout for additional effect. Right from the start of the Spring passage the elegant synergy in which these two musical realms work is apparent; ethereal synth harmonies and fluttering violins dance around a harp’s cascading tones. Their flirtatious struggle for the foreground creates a sense of idyllic fantasy that rounds off with an elegant dance theme, leading into Summer.

Summer, booming and filled with revelry, surfaces from the clarity of Spring; the silence penetrated first by a few lonesome hums, and then giving way to an intense passage dominated by Hope’s violin. A slow and serene interlude prepares the listener for the last movement, the thundering, movie trailer-esque “Storm,” which, with its almost dance-like pulse, erupts in unrestrained emotion. After three minutes, the booming rhythm gives way suddenly to an eerie, amorphous ambience of aquatic synth which Richter masterfully uses to segue into the more somber tones of the latter seasons.

Autumn opens with a virtuosic violin passage which seamlessly transitions into a gorgeous amalgam of strings and electronica, ascending from the roaring melodies of the Summer into passages of heart-rending beauty with ambient swell. Drifting arpeggios and undulating scales backed by a potent synth line bring to mind images of leaves falling haphazardly to the ground, brushed casually from the arms of bending trees. The violins build a simple harmony from which a rumbling melody surfaces, surging along with suppressed elegance, heralding Winter’s coming.

Winter emerges with stabbing, Psycho-esque pizzicati, marking the final season’s apocalyptic tone. A relentlessly violent rhythm and angry, staccati-punctuated violin passages evoke icy, biting winds that sweep into a blizzard, blinding, filled with wrath. Abruptly, we are then thrown headlong from this tempest into a desolate atmosphere built around a single, wavering violin weeping over a skeletal synth drone. This trembling melody compounds in waves of coalescent strings as the tone ascends, culminating in the album’s climactic point: a colossal string section which echoes the Spring melody with profound beauty. Slowly, the strings fade out in spiritual dénouement, testament to the interminable cycle of the seasons; and closing the Four Seasons with the very same resplendent beauty by which it began.

The best piece of music is the one that arouses the greatest emotion within the listener and Richter, whose repertoire includes such emotional powerhouses as 2002’s Memoryhouse and 2004’s The Blue Notebooks, is no stranger to stirring souls. Four Seasons succeeds foremost on a highly technical level. For those unacquainted with classical music the rigour and finesse required to play these passages often goes unrecognized and unappreciated, dulling the effect of the piece and lending to the overall tone a quasi-Muzak feel that places it amongst far lesser works. Where Richter succeeds above Vivaldi is in the execution of emotion. He lends to the cold and technical brilliance of Vivaldi’s original a heart overflowing with sentience and movement; and, without detracting from the original’s technical genius, he creates a Four Seasons that is emotionally riveting and primally touching. Richter’s Four Seasons is at once familiar to us as the Four Seasons we all recognize and know but with a fresh, dynamic core. In Four Seasons Richter has created a primordial and serene beauty. He has bestowed upon Vivaldi’s masterpiece a humanity.

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