Every now and then, there comes an artist who defines a generation in their chosen field. When it comes to modern classical music, many would assume that person to be Ludovico Einaudi. Yes, you’ve heard his music on every advert/TV show/movie going, but for me there is another worth considering – Max Richter. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a bona fide Einaudi superfan. It’s just that, as far as I’m concerned, Richter has pushed the sound in directions that sound new and fresh, and always excite me, whichever medium the music is applied to.
Maybe I should start with a brief introduction to the composer and his works, for those of you that are encountering him for the first time. With his debut album, and personal favourite, Memoryhouse, Richter announced himself as the future of the scene. Poetry, opera and electronica all collided with traditional classical, along with themes that challenged the listener – in particular the aftermath of the Kosovo conflict.
I first encountered the German-born Brit through the use of his music in the excellent 2010 BBC drama, Dive. Images of wind farms off the bleak North East coast seemed a perfect fit for excerpts from his 2004 masterpiece, The Blue Notebooks. After my first proper listen, it had changed the way I listened to and appreciated classical music, and it was rightly described by Pitchfork as “one of the most affecting and universal contemporary classical records in recent memory”.
Songs From Before, 24 Postcards In Full Colour and Infra further solidified his standing in neo-classical, along with his score for Oscar-nominated, Lebanese war animation, Waltz With Bashir. A re-working of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons followed, before Richter wrote and released an eight and a half hour long composition entitled Sleep. Unsurprisingly, the album was designed to be listened to while sleeping, and was accompanied by several overnight concerts, complete with beds for the listener – unfortunately I missed out on tickets for his performance in London in May.
Most recently, Richter’s score for HBO’s The Leftovers has made up for the fact that at times the show is a confusing, albeit enjoyable, mess. It’s a tour de force that plays with your emotions, and strikes all the right notes alongside the show’s most triumphant moments.
Now, the composer is back with a three-part composition to accompany the new Wayne McGregor ballet, Woolf Works, at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.
As the name suggests, Woolf Works is based on three of Virginia Woolf‘s landmark novels: Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves. Woven around the themes from the books are inspirations taken from Woolf’s essays, letters and diaries. Given the multitude of influences from the subject’s life, it seems fitting that Richter brings a variety of sounds and methods to the table.
“Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations, naturally. They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the chief difficulties in writing them today – that they are stored with other meanings, with other memories, and they have contracted so many famous marriages in the past”
Following an original voice recording of Woolf herself, “In The Garden” blends multiple orchestral sections in trademark Richter style, as we are introduced to the first of Woolf’s novels to be covered, Mrs Dalloway. The violin and cello float around the piano, and the piece reveals itself almost like one continuous flow, not stopping for a moment. “War Anthem” hits a more sombre note. Multi-layered strings evoke images of the First World War, and perfectly illustrate the post-war trauma suffered by one of the novel’s characters. The track is anguished, and yet somehow beautiful at the same time.
“Meeting Again” rounds off the first part of this triptych, seemingly continuing the same sound from the previous two compositions. The piano in particular recalls many of The Blue Notebooks’ finer moments, and truly sounds like vintage Richter.
The next ten tracks all tackle Woolf’s 1928 novel, Orlando. The composer introduces a more current sound, staccato strings accompanying atmospheric electronica throughout. “Modular Astronomy” gallops along at a steady pace, and is reminiscent of some of Hans Zimmer’s incredible score for Interstellar, as well as Richter’s recurring melody used throughout Memoryhouse. “Transformation” continues along the same epic path, only for “The Tyranny Of Symmetry” to change things up with a discordant and overbearing tone. Waves of synth swim around on “Persistance Of Images” as the electronic influence is ramped up, and “Genesis Of Poetry” continues in the same vein, sounding somewhat futuristic. Interspersed between these tracks are atmospheric interludes, that lend the second portion of the release a necessary structure and pace.
The third and final part of the collection opens with Gillian Anderson reciting the suicide note left by Woolf for her husband Leonard. The words are haunting, and the accompanying soundtrack of waves crashing against a shore are surely a nod to the writer’s choice of ending her life by filling her coat pockets with stones and walking into a nearby river. By covering this last novel, The Waves, in one track of almost 22 minutes, Richter allows an elaborate exploration of only a few melodies, including the introduction of a vocal from British soprano Grace Davidson. It’s a rewarding, and fitting finale, and I can only imagine how moving the conclusion of the ballet must have been.
Max Richter’s compositions have been used time and again in film and television, most notably for Shutter Island, Prometheus, Arrival, and even an episode of Black Mirror last year. There’s a reason for this: his ability to stir the emotions, and heighten the senses, is second to none. Further evidence of this comes in the form of his multiple works for opera and ballet, having worked alongside choreographer Wayne McGregor several times.
With Woolf Works, he has again delivered an astounding piece of work, leaving this listener moved to tears on more than one occasion. I only wish I’d been able to experience these emotions in their intended setting, but due to some date-bungling I managed to miss the live streaming offered by my local Odeon – on the strength of these 66 minutes, that’s a mistake I won’t be making again!
HIGHLIGHTS: “War Anthem”, “Modular Astronomy”, “Transformation”.