Club venue is perfect setting for Max Richter's reworking of 'The Seasons'
They came to party. In order to get into last week’s ‘Yellow Lounge’ concert at Berlin’s most famous techno club, Berghain, music fans needed to contend with less of a line and more of a mosh pit; a bouncer who favored the thin and glamorous; and imperious receptionists. Deutsche Grammophon, which curates the buttoned-down classical club evenings that attract a youthful crowd, had put together a baroque-flavored event to promote two of its latest releases, ‘Long Walk’, the second album from pianist Francesco Tristano and ‘Recomposed by Max Richer: Vivaldi, The Four Seasons’.
Tristano was the opening act. From a grand piano on the ground level of the former power plant that Berghain occupies, he energetically tore through a selection of pieces featured on his new album, which includes works by Bach and Buxtehude alongside Tristano’s own compositions. The last of these features computer-generated elements, and the standing audience members strained their necks to see what exactly the pianist was fiddling with on his laptop. The bar was closed during the performances, which didn’t prevent the periodic clattering of beer bottles, which jarringly punctuated the Aria from the Goldberg Variations, Tristano’s set-closer.
The audience was able to top up their drinks during the intermission before the ‘recomposed’ Four Seasons got underway on the club’s main, upstairs level. Max Richter, a German-born British composer, was on hand to supervise the work’s measured and judiciously displaced electronic elements. In lieu of a string quartet and basso continuo, Richter opted for a chamber orchestra, the Konzerthaus Kammerorchester Berlin, led by André de Ridder. Star violinist Daniel Hope was also on hand for the solo part. Based on my own part experiences with both the 'Yellow Lounge' – now in its tenth year – and the ‘Recomposed’ line, Richter’s composition marks a new high.
The ‘Recomposed’ series has indeed come a long way since its inception in 2005, when Matthew Arfmann laid R&B beats down on top of highlights from Scheherazade, the New World Symphony and Swan Lake. The previous release in the series was British electronic music artist Matthew Herbert’s serious-minded yet esoteric reworking of the Adagio from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, in 2010.
Unlike these artists, Richter’s background is in classical composition, which certainly helped to distinguish his Vivaldi-inspired contribution from other crossover collaborations with DJs and hip-hop artists.
Despite the heavy cigarette smoke, dire need of air conditioning and kitschy animations superimposed on the live video-feed of the concert, the venue’s industrial feel and the lateness of the hour (the main act went on at 11pm) seemed wholly appropriate to Richter’s energetic and evocative take on this repertoire mainstay. He has done far more than simply re-orchestrate the Vivaldi, going through the original score and plucking out his favorite musical ideas and dispensing with a great deal of the notes. For instance, Winter’s first movement put-puts to life like a broken car engine, it’s circle of fifths opening replaced by rhythmic bowings of violins and violas who play grating, indistinct notes, before Hope bursts forth with his virtuosic solo. Despite his many alterations, Richter’s version remains remarkably faithful to the spirit of the original. He sticks to the three-movement structure of each season and throughout shows sensitivity to order and precision. The musicians were prepared to match him, playing in unison the dart-like repeated note values that often gave the work a distinctly minimalistic quality: here Vivaldi becomes systems music grounded by solid melody and a propulsive bass line. The result sounded a good deal like something Michael Nyman could put in one of his soundtracks, but it also had an affinity to the electronic dance music more commonly heard at Berghain.
Richter, Ridder, and Hope will be on hand for the work’s UK premiere, to be performed by the Britten Sinfonia at Barbican Hall on October 31.
A.J. Goldmann is a Berlin-based contributor to Gramophone. His articles on classical music have also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, WSJ Europe, Opera News Magazine and the Forward.