Tuesday 7 October 2014

Max Richter and Daniel Hope at the Royal Albert Hall

Max Richter
Max Richter
Max Richter, Daniel Hope, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra; Royal Albert Hall
Reviewed by Hilary Glober on Oct 04 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Atmospheric and quirky re-composition of Vivaldi's Four Seasons

The main focus of Saturday's (4 October) concert at the Royal Albert Hall was to promote the release of a recording of Max Richter's recomposition of Vivaldi's 'The Four Seasons' starring violinist Daniel Hope. This performance was accompanied by members of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (it is a different orchestra on the CD) and was paired with 'The Blue Notebooks' performed by Richter on piano, keyboard and computer, and the Max Richter Ensemble.

Daniel Hope
Daniel Hope
Max Richter (1966-) was born in Germany but grew up in Britain studying first at Edinburgh University, then Royal Academy of Music in London, and subsequently with Luciano Berio in Florence. He claims influences from Bach to the Beatles, punk rock, and ambient electronica, but his own style is rooted in minimalism, blending classical orchestration with electronic and computational techniques.

As well as orchestral and solo pieces he has written for films, opera and ballet, and collaborated with visual artists, for example 'Rain Room' at the Barbican Centre last year. 'The Four Seasons Recomposed' had its premiere (also with Hope) at the Barbican Centre two years ago.

Antonio Lucio Vivaldi (1678-1741) wrote 'The four seasons' in 1725 for solo string quartet and basso continuo – but Richter has more instruments plus computer- generated loops in his arsenal. He has remained true to Vivaldi's concerto plan such that each season is split into three sections, each of which focuses on some small part of the original.

'Spring I' immediately returned me to last night's concert at St David's Hall – all those birds. The introduction was waves of electronically generated sound over which flew Vivaldi's birds. The bird sounds were fragmented and looped over simplified chords from the accompaniment. While being obviously less than the original, it was also somehow more, as it built up into a beautiful soaring flight – to a trademark sudden stop.

This method of composition continued throughout. Richter claims to have used 25% of the Vivaldi but I doubt that it that much. All the well known tunes were there, with enough of the virtuosic passages for Hope to revel in. Besides the electronics there were also some interesting orchestration choices such as harp and keyboard in parallel.

Richter kept the harpsichord, which had some duets, but included other more modern ideas such as continuous string harmonics - a sound I would associate with a quartet such as Kronos. Some sections had a more popular feeling: I was reminded of 'Bring Me to Life' by Evanescence and 'Roxanne' from the film 'Moulin Rouge'. In 'Winter I' every note was ornamented – a period style taken to its extremes. The final spiccato section was a joy to behold.

My only annoyance was that the audience insisted on applauding after each movement which, although it showed their enthusiasm, also broke up the flow of the music.

Hope's solo encore was 'Berlin by overnight' also composed by Richter. This was a study in small changes making a big difference. While in some ways it might be thought of as a homage to Philip Glass there are subtle differences, and Hope made the most of the simple repetitive material by changing bow techniques to alter the sound.

The second half of the concert was 'The Blue Notebooks' (2004). The readings from the notebooks (Franz Kafka's 'The Blue Octavo Notebooks' and Czesław Miłosz's 'Hymn of the Pearl' and 'Unattainable Earth') were performed by Sarah Sutcliffe.

Both of the movements 'Iconography' and 'Organum' used a pair of keyboards to mimic the sound of a church pipe organ. Very cleverly done. The other movements in general follow a pattern of layering which slowly build up. The peaceful 'On the Nature of Daylight' led with viola, supplanted by one violin, then the other, each tune then became the accompaniment to the next. When the piano came in it served as the core, reworking earlier material. This movement has been used in several films including 'Stranger than Fiction' (2006). 'Organum' has also appeared in a film 'Waltz with Bashir' (2008) and I recognised 'Vladimir's Blues' as the soundtrack to a commercial.

There are more birds – this time a recording of birdsong at the end of 'Shadow Journal'. In this movement the synthesised bass line was almost identifiable – as though it was an instrument you should recognise but that has been dropped down out of its normal register. Other instruments were provided as loops – harp and percussive effects for the violin solo. Towards the end of the last movement the lighting changed from blue to red – which remained throughout the applause.

I can see why Richter is so popular and played to a packed house. His music is atmospheric and quirky without being too overtly experimental. It is predominantly tonal and easy to listen to but never simplistic. The performers were all clearly tuned into this - bringing out the sensitive and emotional aspects of what could otherwise slip into mechanical monotony.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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