‘Like seeing a sculpture from a different angle’: Max Richter on rewriting The Four Seasons – for the second time

His 2012 reimagining of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons was huge hit. So why, a decade later, is Max Richter recording it once again – this time with period instruments and a vintage synth?

I fell in love with Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons when I was very young. It was one of the few classical records my parents owned and I listened to it constantly. I would line the needle up, wait for the crackle, and sit back as the music flowed magically into the room. The work is perfect for a child. There are wonderful melodies, lots of drama, stories and atmosphere. It’s a gateway into the classical music universe. I felt that I had discovered a secret, beautiful world.

Vivaldi wrote the four violin concertos that make up The Four Seasons between 1716 and 1720, and they were published in conjunction with four sonnets – one for each season, possibly also by the composer. The works are groundbreaking in many ways. He employed all kinds of effects to imitate what the sonnets describe: the buzzing of flies on a hot summer’s day, dogs barking, bird calls and drunken people partying. This idea that instrumental music could illustrate events or nature was completely new.

Since its rediscovery in the 1940s, after centuries of neglect, The Four Seasons has been a popular concert and recording staple, but it was Nigel Kennedy’s 1989 recording with the English Chamber Orchestra that sent it stratospheric. One of the bestselling classical recordings ever, it spent 80 weeks in the pop charts. No classical work before or since has reached such a huge audience, but the recording’s popularity made Vivaldi’s piece ubiquitous. As an adult, I heard the music relentlessly on TV adverts, jingles and on-hold music. I grew to hate it. In a way, I stopped being able to hear it as music at all.

Netflix’s Bridgerton, one of the many shows and events that Richter’s Recomposed has soundtracked
Netflix’s Bridgerton, one of the many shows and events that Richter’s Recomposed has soundtracked. Photograph: Liam Daniel/Netflix

I needed to resolve the love/hate relationship I had with the work – call it an exorcism – and reclaim Vivaldi’s original as a musical object rather than a sonic irritant. The best way to do that, I decided, would be to take a voyage through Vivaldi’s landscape and to make new discoveries there.

As I looked into the score I saw there was a natural meeting point between his baroque language and my own. Vivaldi’s work is very pattern-based, and he generates his effects by juxtaposing contrasting kinds of material. That’s very much the way post-minimal music and electronic dance music operates, and I found plenty of touch points that enabled me to dive into his material in a natural, sculptural and architectural way. The result, 2012’s Recomposed, succeeded in letting me encounter The Four Seasons afresh and laying the ghost of many hours of enforced listening to tinny 30-second loops of Spring while on hold waiting to speak to my bank.

Watch the video for Spring 1 from The New Four Seasons

When creative work leaves your desk, it takes on a life of its own. Recomposed topped the iTunes classical chart in the UK, Germany and the US, and to date has amassed more than 450m streams. It has featured on the soundtrack of all kinds of TV and cinema projects, including The Crown and Bridgerton. It has been used in fashion shows, and all kinds of artists have made a connection with it. I think people enjoy having a new perspective on a familiar object, old and new at the same time, but I never expect or assume that people will listen to my music: when people connect to a piece I have made, it is incredibly heartening.

However, it wasn’t quite the record I had originally envisaged. When I wrote Recomposed, I wanted to record it with instruments as close as possible to the ones Vivaldi would have heard. I approached specialist orchestras that played with period instruments, but there was zero enthusiasm. So I made my 2012 record with a modern-instrument ensemble. I was lucky enough to be able to recruit a stellar cast – the wonderful Daniel Hope and the Konzerthaus Orchestra of Berlin.

A violinist in Chineke recording Max Richter’s New Four Seasons
A violinist in Chineke recording Max Richter’s New Four Seasons Photograph: Meeks

Over the past decade I have had the chance to perform the work with a variety of different orchestras and soloists. There is something special about the textures and sonorities that period instruments bring to Vivaldi’s score, and I continued to think about what Recomposed would sound like played on the instruments of Vivaldi’s time. I felt there was another journey I wanted to make through this material, and so I decided to rerecord Recomposed.

My record company was, I confess, a bit puzzled. My second-favourite emoji is the monocle one 🧐and there was quite a bit of that at first – explain again why we are doing this? Yes, it’s 10 years since the first record, but this wasn’t about anniversaries. The impetus and the rationale was purely musical.

Period instruments have a different character from modern ones and bring out different qualities in the musicians. The instruments and the bows are lighter, the strings – made of gut rather than steel – are more responsive, so there is more intimate human connection. They might make a smaller sound but within that sound there is greater light and shade. You can hear it particularly in the extremes; in the very slow, tender music you get a very direct feeling of the individual players, and in the very fast, intense, dynamic music you feel the orchestra is about to blow up.

Zurich Ballet’s 2015 work Kairos used Richter’s Recomposed
Zurich Ballet’s 2015 work Kairos used Richter’s Recomposed. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Seeing as we were going back to period instruments, I decided to use a vintage synthesiser, too, a Moog from the early 1970s, the decade that is the electronic music equivalent of the 18th century. They’re wonderful instruments, clunky and unpredictable, but with a huge amount of character and a kind of gravitas. Locating one was no problem – I’m a bit of an obsessive and have several already in my collection.

Every time I play The Four Seasons it’s different. The people, the room, the instruments, your own feelings that day – every different element creates a unique experience which is the magic of live music-making. This time round, with the brilliant soloist Elena Urioste and musicians from Chineke! it truly felt like a new journey, like seeing a sculpture from a different angle. It was a process of exploration and of learning for most of the musicians, too, many of whom were playing period instruments for the first time.

Soloist Elena Urioste
Soloist Elena Urioste Photograph: Chris Gloag

Recomposed is chamber music. That means it is a conversation between equal voices, and I was excited to hear what the musicians of Chineke! Orchestra would bring to the work. As well as being a collection of dedicated and talented young players, Chineke! is also a social project. It’s a multi-ethnic, majority black ensemble, and the 24 players brought a broad range of experiences, visions and approaches to music making. They are hugely inspiring – the orchestra of the future.

We are living today in a time of existential crisis. One of the reasons I do creative work is because my own experience as a reader, a listener, a watcher of cinema, is that these things can make my life a tiny bit better. Maybe they make my life 4% better than it would be otherwise, but that 4% is valuable. It’s a tiny thing, but it is a thing. And it’s really important to keep doing creative work, especially during these dark times.

Watch the video for Summer 1 from The New Four Seasons

Throughout all musical cultures, music has been about other music. When I was originally writing Recomposed I wondered what Vivaldi would make of it. He was, in fact, a composer who often reworked his music – Spring reappears in a sinfonia in his 1724 opera Il Giustino. He was a deeply serious musician – he had his own orchestra exclusively for young women, orphans and foundlings, but he was also the ultimate showman, a Hendrix-type figure with a huge mane of red hair, a tremendous performer and a violin virtuoso. Back in 2012, our first performance of Recomposed was at Berlin’s legendary mecca of techno, Berghain. I think Vivaldi would have loved that: to see the audience dancing to the beats of Summer.

The New Four Seasons recorded with the Chineke! Orchestra and Elena Urioste, is out today on Deutsche Grammophon. Max Richter performs at the London Royal Hospital Chelsea on 16 June.


Max Richter

The GuardianTramp

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