Album Review: Recomposed by Max Richter – Vivaldi – ‘The Four Seasons’

As a classical musician, the title ‘Recomposed’ stands out like a sore thumb; especially when it associates itself with Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Prior to listening I thought, “how on earth can a contemporary composer recompose a classical masterpiece?” However, this critical first impression I held of the album was instantly shattered.

The diverse repertoire of British composer, Max Richter, stretches from concert music, through film scoring, to acclaimed solo albums.  Richter is one of the most recognised composer of contemporary music in Europe and his influences include many late-Twentieth century composers including Luciano Berio. Within his compositions, Richter also explores the relationship between many artistic languages and art forms.

So, what led to Richter’s decision to re-imagine Vivaldi’s Four Seasons? Ultimately the answer is personal but he clearly sought to find hidden elements within the score and create a fresh conception of a masterpiece. Perhaps then this approach by Richter is something that should be admired rather than feared (for all we know, Beethoven’s Symphony No.9 may soon be ‘recomposed’ and for the better). Through Richter’s ambitious project, he hopes to encourage audiences to return to the original Vivaldi with new ears; ears that will be aware and informed of many aspects of the score that may have been overlooked.

The music of Vivaldi is notorious for its fragmentary approach, within the formal structure. This fragmentation is formed through melodic repetition and regular rhythmic patterns, both of which feature heavily in post-modern music and especially minimalism. ‘Recomposed’ makes use of the stylistic features of Four Seasons whilst ensuring that the gestures, shape, textures and dynamics found within the original Baroque composition are integral to the new approach, capitalising on the ‘reusable’ past of the musical canon.

The Four Seasons (1723) is regarded as one of the most successful pieces from the Baroque music period. In the original score, each respective movement resembles each season.  Within ‘Recomposed’, Richter has isolated rhythms and melodies (Richter has openly admitted to discarding three-quarters of the original score) and created a new interpretation of each season.

‘Spring’ begins with a collaborative layer of sound from different instruments that develops into recognisable material from the original score. The musical gestures intertwine in the foreground against a simple harp harmony. Gradually the movement develops into a solo violin passage performed by Daniel Hope, accompanied by a repetitive accompaniment creating a sombre atmosphere, only short-lived, before being revived by a lively dance theme to complete the movement. I was particularly impressed with Hope’s performance, as he embraced the character of each season with elegance and clarity.

Anticipation, fuelled by the rhythmic repetition, drives ‘Summer’ into a full tutti orchestration. A contrasting, lyrical section follows, returning to the sombre mood suggested in the previous season of ‘Spring’. One cannot help but feel overwhelmed by the emotional power that controls this season. In particular, the restrained lively thematic material represents the most pleasant season of the year.

‘Autumn’ contains a mixture of virtuosic passages and instrumental techniques/electronic sound that truly reflect the mixed emotional response that ‘Autumn’ achieves. As a listener, Richter successfully takes the listener on a journey of exploration; from lively upbeat passages reflecting the beginning of Autumn, through to slower paced sections (suggesting the Autumn leaves falling to the ground), before swiftly developing into ‘Winter’; a change which is achieved through the warm harmony provided by the double basses and lively melody.

‘Winter’ finally arrives in the most desolate and destructive form. Richter orchestrates the string ensemble with rhythmic drive and anticipation as he seeks to represent icy winds and heavy snow through the abrupt pizzicato. The music then propels the audience into an atmosphere of isolation; a delicate harmony that is sustained whilst Hope takes centre stage. The movement draws to a close, as the musical idea is repeated time and time again which reflects the continuous cycle of seasons.

I am highly impressed with ‘Recomposed’. Richter’s ability to re-imagine and transform a score held with such high esteem is certainly a skill to be admired. His modern and fresh perspective of Vivaldi’s musical language draws the listener’s attention to the previously overlooked elements of the original score. I believe all listeners should experience ‘Recomposed’ – regardless of whether classical is your preferred genre – as Richter has created a fantastic piece of music that stretches the boundaries of modern composition whilst maintaining the respect and integrity for the original score.

Jonathan Newsome

Jonathan is listening to Charles Gounod – ‘Faust’

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