Sunday 29 August 2021

Rich orchestral textures, vibrant performances, political engagement: Max Richter's Exiles from Baltic Sea Philharmonic & Kristjan Järvi.

Max Richter Exiles; Baltic Sea Philharmonic, Kristjan Järvi; Deutsche Grammophon

Max Richter Exiles; Baltic Sea Philharmonic, Kristjan Järvi; Deutsche Grammophon

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 27 August 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Max Richter revels in this exploration of large-scale orchestral textures in tandem with vibrant performances from Järvi and his young orchestra

Composer Max Richter's latest disc Exiles on Deutsche Grammophon is a collaboration with the Baltic Sea Philharmonic and conductor Kristjan Järvi. Six of Richter's works, some new and some old, all in versions created for the ensemble that brings together musicians from Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Russia and Sweden. Many of the works come originally from larger scale theatre pieces; Exiles is the score for the ballet Singulière OdysséeFlowers of Herself from Woolf Works, On the Nature of Daylight from The Blue Notebooks, The Haunted Ocean from Waltz with Bashir, Infra 5 from Infra, Sunlight from Songs from Before.

Many of the pieces have a degree of political engagement with inspirations varying from the migration crisis arising out of the Arab Spring to the war in Lebanon and terrorist attacks in London. This selection is deliberate; Richter felt that the music's sesne of engagement suited the ethos of the orchestra, bringing together young musicians from countries that were formerly on both sides of the Iron Curtain

Paul Lightfoot and Sol Leon are the resident choreographers at Nederlands Dans Theater and their ballet Singulière Odyssée debuted in February 2017, using Richter's score Exiles which was specially composed for the piece. Inspired partly by the events arising from the Arab Spring in 2011 and the subsequent migrant crisis, Exiles is a 30-minute piece based around a repeated motif and Richter describes it thus, "this one pattern which goes around and around as it passes through different landscapes. It’s a very simple idea, but I wanted to put this notion of exile, of walking, of movement, into the heart of the music in a technical sense as well as metaphorical.” 

The works starts of in a gently melancholic way, and the short, repeated motif is placed against slowly unfolding long lines, with Richter gradually building layers over this ground bass which means that the perspective is constantly shifting. But there is a sense of slow build, of increase intensity and complexity until the vibrant climax is finally reached, before the tension unwinds again.

The disc opens with Flowers of Herself which formed the introduction to Richter's ballet, Woolf Works which he wrote for the Royal Ballet and its resident choreographer Wayne McGregor, which premiered in 2015. A number of the works on the disc are larger-scale reworkings of existing material. On the Nature of Daylight originally comes from Richter's 2004 album The Blue Notebooks, a work of protest against the Iraq War. The Haunted Ocean is a full orchestra version of a theme from the soundtrack to Waltz with Bashir, an animated documentary about writer and director Ari Folman’s experiences as a soldier during the 1982 Lebanon War. Richter's 2010 piece Infra was a Royal Ballet-commissioned collaboration with choreographer Wayne McGregor and artist Julian Opie and it had as its key subject matter the terrorist attacks on London in July 2005. The movement Infra 5 was originally for five strings but is here heard in a full orchestra version. Sunlight is a string quartet movement from 2006’s album Songs from Before, but again performed here by a full orchestra and included because Richter is rather fond of the piece and feels that the album got rather eclipsed by The Blue Notebooks.

The music often shows Richter's fondness for combining slow moving material with faster motifs, using the different layers of a piece to creative effect as the foreground is constantly shifting. And he manages the knack of ramping up tension and emotion often by adding another layer rather than shifting tempos, so that the pieces seem to flow at multiple speeds. The result can be unnervingly comforting, which at times sits oddly with the high degree of political engagement that Richter shows in the inspiration for his music, witness the description of Exiles above. Yet the way he can write an apparently simple but rather moving or touching melody is striking, particularly when it then combined with other material, other layers, tightening the screw. And, as he explains in one of the accompanying videos on the YouTube playlist, he sees the music as a way of reflecting on the events, whether it is events in Lebanon, the Iraq war or the migration crisis. So it is music that is about something, but is not always descriptive.

In these performances, Richter is revelling in having a full orchestra to play with. Often his music is performed by smaller groups, individually miked, but here we have the richly vivid tones of the Baltic Sea Philharmonic. The players bring a vibrant individuality to each line individual line, giving this deceptively simple music rich and individual life, and Kristjan Järvi is adept at keeping the end in sight when judging tempos in the long arcs of Richter's works (Exiles is in a single 33 minutes arc).

For those interested in exploring more, there is a YouTube playlist for the album, including Richter talking about his inspirations for the music.

This is the sort of album which is going to get listened to because the music is perceived as relaxing and comfortable, but scratch beneath the service of these deceptively simple constructions and there is far more to them than that, particularly in these vibrant performances.

Max Richter(born 1966) - Flowers of Herself from Woolf Works
Max Richter - On the Nature of Daylight from The Blue Notebooks
Max Richter - The Haunted Ocean from Waltz with Bashir
Max Richter - Infra 5 from Infra
Max Richter - Sunlight from Songs from Before
Max Richter - Exiles
Baltic Sea Philharmonic
Kristjan Järvi (conductor)
Recorded Tallinn, Estonia in September 2019

Available as two LPs, CD or download via Exiles link tree.

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