MAN FOR FOUR SEASONS
Max Richter’s reimagining of Vivaldi’s classic violin concertos promises to meld the familiar with the strange, writes
HEN composer Max Richter was a boy, his first piano teacher — a well-meaning but severe old woman — almost knocked the instrument out of him. There’d be a smack if he played a wrong note, which was rather a disincentive to mastering such things as scales and etudes. For a few years he gave up his piano studies, but it didn’t diminish his love for music. Richter is today one of the popular composers working in the “indieclassical” style, writing music for film and dance as well as the concert hall.
Another preoccupation of his youth was electronic music, especially the sounds he heard on television and later came to know as music by Kraftwerk and Vangelis. He was dismayed to discover synthesisers were beyond a teenager’s means, but he got hold of a kit instrument — the sublimely named Transcendent 2000 — so he could make his own versions of electronica.
“There I was, this 14-year-old kid with a soldering iron, putting this stuff together myself,” Richter says on the phone from Berlin. “It became a parallel obsession, with the whole classical music thing.”
Richter, 48, was born in Germany, but the family moved to England when he was a boy and he grew up in Bedford, north of London. In recent years he has moved back to Germany, and lives in central Berlin. If, in a conversation with him, you’re expecting a German accent, it’s disconcerting to hear a voice that’s thoroughly English in accent and idiom. Of building his synthesiser kit, he says: “It was transcendentally difficult to do, I tell you.”
There’s a similar feeling of familiar-strange in The Four Seasons, in which Richter has “recomposed” one of the best-loved pieces in the classical canon. Vivaldi’s cycle of four violin concertos takes the listener through the year from spring to summer, autumn and winter, with music that is by turns vigorous, serene and undeniably picturesque.
Richter’s version dispenses with about threequarters of Vivaldi, but the baroque bones of the piece are unmistakable. It’s as if The Four Seasons has been transplanted from baroque Venice to contemporary London or Berlin, with accented rhythms that are a bit like modernday dance music.
“It’s an amazing piece of music, it’s wonderful,” Richter says of the original. “But the trouble is, you just hear it all the time: on the TV, on adverts, in the shopping mall. You just get sick of hearing it.
“I just wanted to try to reclaim it, really. It’s almost like some landscape that you love but
Wyou have to drive through it every day, and you end up hating it, even though you might be in some beautiful place. My idea was to go off road, and explore that landscape from a different angle, and to try and capture my original feelings for it.
“There are bits in it which are only Vivaldi; there are bits in it which are only me; and there are ratios in between. But mostly what you hear is new material, although it’s all got Vivaldi’s DNA in it.”
Richter is in Australia to give the local premiere of The Four Seasons at the Sydney Opera House tomorrow and at the Melbourne Recital Centre on Monday. The composer will handle the electronic side of things while Canadian violinist Yuki Numata plays the virtuosic solos. The visiting ensemble is the Wordless Music Orchestra, with whom Richter has performed at the hip classical music club Le Poisson Rouge in New York.
“They play at Le Poisson Rouge. They do this downtowny, classical thing, with fantastic programming,” Richter says. “They are the house band there — it’s a fantastic group of people.”
Australian audiences will have another opportunity to hear Richter’s take on Vivaldi. The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra will next year present The Four Seasons on period instruments: baroque-style strings, that is, not the electronic keyboard. Artistic director Paul Dyer will be swapping his harpsichord for a synthesiser, and will discuss the details with Richter while the composer is in Australia.
Like many musicians who came of age in the era of recorded music, Richter absorbed sounds from everywhere: electronica, pop, punk, the classical tradition and modern composition from Stockhausen to the American minimalists. He studied in Edinburgh and at London’s Royal Academy of Music, and with Luciano Berio in Florence. Berio was a formative influence. The composer was a pioneer of electronic music and of sound-collage effects: elements that Richter would one day use in his own music.
“I think his music is a very complete music,” Richter says of Berio. “It feels like it has the whole of music history inside it: pieces that quote bits of Mahler and Ravel and the Beatles, and speeches from Martin Luther King.”
Richter’s first solo album was a 2002 suite of compositions called Memoryhouse, a work that features orchestra, electronics and field recordings, and has a cultish status. It was performed live for the first time in London earlier this year in a sold-out concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. In other compositions, he’s used texts by Haruki Murakami, Czeslaw Milosz and Franz Kafka, the last read by Tilda Swinton. Among his film scores are music for Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir and Lore by Australia’s Cate Shortland.
His theatre music includes a ballet, Infra, for the Royal Ballet, with choreography by Wayne McGregor and staged with large-scale animations by Julian Opie. He later expanded the bal- let score into a 45-minute work, and this longer concert version will be performed with The Four Seasons in Sydney and Melbourne. Richter and McGregor are working on another ballet together, this one about Virginia Woolf.
How has Richter brought a contemporary voice to such a well-worn classic as The Four Seasons? He is certainly not the first musician to riff on the composer known as the Red Priest (Vivaldi was a redhead and a cleric).
Richter means no disrespect when he describes Vivaldi’s greatest hit as “pattern music”. Its modular construction and motifs are similar to more modern forms of music he admires, such as electronica and minimalism.
“I’ve taken the rhythmic seeds of the various movements, and intensified them into a more contemporary way of thinking about pulse,” he says. “The fast movements in Summer exist in a dance music universe, really, but using Vivaldi’s work as the core of it.”
In Autumn, he says, he has cut and pasted Vivaldi like a collage or film. Winter has glassy surfaces that “sound electronic, but are all made with the strings”. Melody and rhythmic zest prevail throughout Richter and Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, and the listener has the sensation of hearing the familiar anew.
“It’s tricky to say, but it certainly feels like a familiar landscape and you recognise signposts along the way,” he says. “It’s like walking around a sculpture and trying to see it from a different perspective.”
Max Richter has been influenced by electronica, pop and punk, as well as the classical tradition
Violinist Yuki Numata