Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, composed in 1723, is so ‘accessible’, it has suffered the fate of overexposure. Its four heady concerti pass through summer, autumn, winter, and spring, depicting folk life and evocative landscapes in bite-sized chunks. Some of its passages are so instantly recognisable that they have suffered the ignominy of being used as background music in commercials.
Enter German-born British composer and pianist Max Richter (b 1966), who has reworked Vivaldi’s cornerstone repertoire work with his own influences of minimalism, electronic music, punk, club music and psychedelic rock. Richter studied piano and composition at the University of Edinburgh, the Royal Academy of Music and with Luciano Berio. He co-founded the ensemble Piano Circus in 1989 which commissioned and performed works by Arvo Pärt, Brian Eno, Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, Louis Andriessen and Steve Reich.
Vivaldi Recomposed was premiered in London in October 2012 by the Britten Sinfonia, with violin soloist Daniel Hope, conducted by André de Ridder, whom Sydney audiences loved when he conducted the Sydney Symphony in their recent 2001: A Space Odyssey performance. Deutsche Grammophon recorded Richter’s recomposition for release in February 2013 with Hope and German ensemble Konzerthaus Kammerorchester Berlin, led again by conductor André de Ridder.
It was chosen as the Best Contemporary Classical album of 2012 on iTunes in Australia, the US and UK.
Richter says “Anything that a composer writes is part of a conversation with music that has gone before. A lot of Berio’s work was explicitly an engagement with the past: in works like Sinfonia, for example, quotation and reference are integral elements. At the time I never thought that I’d pick that idea up, but here is an instance where perhaps I have. It’s surprising how these things creep up on you. Vivaldi’s music is made of regular patterns, and that connects with post-minimalism, which is one strand in the music that I write. That felt like a natural link, but even so it was surprisingly difficult to navigate my way through it.”
Conductor André de Ridder has recently worked on Dr Dee, an opera by the British pop musician Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz, and regularly collaborates with electronic bands and non-classical musicians such as Mouse on Mars, Tyondai Braxton and These New Puritans.
De Ridder admits to some early doubts. “I’d initially been sceptical; I couldn’t help thinking of all the bad pop and jazz versions of The Four Seasons. My scepticism evaporated when Max played me his demo tapes. His version uses contemporary compositional techniques more familiar from electronic pop music: looping and sampling, for example. But he applies these techniques in analogue, writing them down and working on them with his ensemble, to the point where now I almost prefer the end product to the original.”
Daniel Hope is a former member of the Beaux Arts Trio. As a noted exponent of both contemporary and classical repertoire he is well placed to interpret both the old and new facets of the work. He too was reluctant to be involved at first. “The Four Seasons is a radical tour de force for the solo violinist. I have always shied away from recording Vivaldi’s original; there are simply too many other versions out there. Max’s reworking has persuaded me to listen to the piece anew and has restored my appetite for the original.”
Richter describes having to maintain a strict separation between his ideas and those he was inhabiting. “At every point I had to work out how much is Vivaldi and how much is me. My score contains passages that are 90 per cent my own material, and others where I have changed only the odd note of the original, slightly shortening individual bars, lengthening others, moving others still. It was difficult but also rewarding because the raw material is so fascinating.”
Recomposed by Max Richter – Vivaldi’s ‘The Four Seasons’ is available on Deutsche Gramophon catalogue number: 9 476 5041 6 LP GH