Live review

REVIEW: Max Richter: The Four Seasons Recomposed at the Purcell Room

Ben Palmer directing the Covent Garden Sinfonia
Photo by Tom Elkins

Max Richter: The Four Seasons Recomposed 
(Covent Garden Sinfonia. Purcell Room, Southbank Centre. 9 October 2018. Review by AJ Dehany)

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The tension between familiarity and novelty was explored in an evening opening with the UK premiere of Ben Palmer’s Bach Dreams and closing with Max Richter’s The Four Seasons Recomposed from 2012. Palmer reimagines three works by Bach, and Richter radically reconfigures Vivaldi, making beautifully strange one of the most famous works in the classical canon.

Richter, in creating his “recomposed” version, threw out 75% of the Vivaldi material and recast the rest into the loops and phases of his own style. Call it post-classical or neoclassical or contemporary classical, it’s very much the sibling to the emotive and stirring category Scandi Noir and the catalytically influential work of Arvo Pärt. As a reworking of The Four Seasons, Richter says even when it’s mostly new it still sounds like Vivaldi, but I’m not so sure. The gorgeous filmic sound of Autumn I just sounds like Richter.

Sure he keeps largely intact certain moments like the crashing violin cadenza of L’estate (Summer) in G minor, Op. 8-2, RV 315- III. Presto. It’s still thrilling; you don’t need to try to make it exciting. Whereas there are few audible traces of La primavera (Spring) in E major, Op. 8-1, RV 269- I. Allegro, you know the bit I mean. Unlistenable now, it is hellish hold music while you wait for an operator, your call recorded for quality purposes. Winter I is fairly faithful to the original but chopped into a 7/8 time signature.

We’re used to looping now so when you hear it on record part of you assumes it’s electronic, but it’s all scored and all played. The physicality of it really strikes you up close. What impressed when it was premiered in the 2000-capacity hall of the Barbican in 2012 was the work’s scale and ambition. But there is also a level of intimate detail that that was brought out in the 295-seater Purcell Room in London’s Southbank Centre.

It also felt less chopped and looped than before, perhaps because of familiarity, not with the Vivaldi but now with the Richter. You could easily emphasise the fragmentation and displacement but Ben Palmer’s conducting and the warm ensemble feel of the 18-piece Covent Garden Sinfonia emphasised the unity and continuity of the conception. The young players of the ensemble have an engaging sound and a fresh, lively approach, opting for youthful passion and brightness rather than overly strict precision.

Fenella Humphreys and Ben Palmer
Photo by Tom Elkins

In the solo violin intro to Arvo Pärt’s classic 10-minute 1977 piece Fratres, Fenella Humphreys seemed to go for bravura, effect and theatricality rather than absolutely clean intonation. She plucked the pizzicato chords of the piece with gusto, but overall the mellifluous spiritual reveries of the piece seemed to suffer from a slight lack of gravitas.

It might be that Fratres also suffered from over-familiarity. We tend to compare familiar works to masterpiece recordings or that one performance you’ll never forget (now where was it again?). Whereas the relative unfamiliarity of Peteris Vasks’ 12-minute 1996 piece Lonely Angel lent it an astonishment and haunting power that was for me the highlight of the concert.

The richness and warmth of the Sinfonia’s sound – often the string players are bowing near or over the neck – highlighted an aspect of Vasks’ work it can be easy to overlook. As well as the strange cold sound world of bowing against the bridge, whistling harmonics and scraping strings, they really brought to life Vasks’ overlooked rich resonant passages, revealing that the beautiful strangeness of Vasks masks a warm-hearted inner light.

Ben Palmer is the founder of the Covent Garden Sinfonia and to open the concert he conducted it through the premiere of his own three-part work Bach Dreams. It is more ‘inspired by’ than a reworking of three Bach pieces, but can be compared to Richter’s recomposition of Vivaldi. It too has an identifiably contemporary post-classical sound, but also irruptions from dropping multiple unconnected keys simultaneously. Like how Charles Ives mimicked the effect of moving between different bandstands, at one point it felt like pieces by Purcell and Philip Glass were playing at the same time. This effect made for a welcome interruption of the prevailing tastefulness of the Scandi-influenced sound in the world at large.

In 2012 what Richter did was considered pretty avant-garde. It still feels contemporary, but now we’ve heard quite a lot of this kind of music on dark crime dramas. What sets Richter’s Four Seasons apart is still its use of the Vivaldi: a postmodernist intervention which gives it a real frisson. It has extra levels that appeal intellectually and which viscerally connect with your lifelong memories of that ubiquitous but evergreen piece, literally a work for all seasons.

AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff.

LINK: Covent Garden Sinfonia website

Categories: Live review

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