Laying a hand on Antonio Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” doesn’t sound like a very good idea, not right off the bat. These four concertos by the Venetian, nicknamed il Prete Rosso, are probably the most well-known music of the baroque period, no offence to Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”, Handel’s “Alleluia” and Albinoni’s “Adagio”. For the same reason, it is already viewed with some misgivings by a firm sector of classical music fans who find a lightness and immediacy in Vivaldi that is far removed from values such as complexity, gravity, commitment and ambition, which are represented by more solid forms such as solemn masses or the romantic symphony. It matters little that Vivaldi was a tireless composer of operas and a refined author of church music (my personal recommendation is his motet “Nulla In Mundo Pax”), he has generally been judged by history (recent history, as his music wasn’t really “discovered” and studied until the 20th century) as a mercenary who wrote the same concerto over and over again, up to 500 times, for different princes and so forth of the European old guard, while “The Four Seasons” is considered a popular classic that is “too easy”.
Max Richter, on the other hand, has bravely and surprisingly chosen Vivaldi’s seasonal cycle to embark on his remix adventure on Deutsche Grammophon, taking over from the final volumes of the “Recomposed” series put out by Carl Craig and Moritz Von Oswald (with pieces by Ravel and Mussorgski) and Matthew Herbert, prolonging and re-contextualising Gustav Mahler’s tenth, unfinished symphony. The first question is how on earth to rewrite “The Four Seasons” without falling into the stereotypical –what could be a vigorous re-reading, with a muscular continuous bass and hysterical strings, in the line of Von Karajan’s reading with the Berlin Philharmonic; or what could also be the “pop” theatrical adaptation in the style of Nigel Kennedy– and without failing to respect a work admired for its melodic and chromatic power. In Richter’s case, anyway, signing on with Deutsche Grammophon led him irremediably to choose a piece of baroque music from the catalogue: as the unofficial disciple of Michael Nyman that he is, his music has much of the drama and tremolo of old music for violins and a small orchestra - especially the adagio part of the concertos - and the insistent, repetitive use of phrases. One of Nyman’s singularities, especially during his career in the 70s and 80s, was reorganising classic fragments - of Gluck, Purcell or Mozart (there are “Don Giovanni In D”, “Miserere” and the entire soundtrack of “The Draughtsman’s Contract”) - into new compositions that were, and at the same time weren’t, a remix or mash-up of old scores from the 18th century.
As the title of the series indicates, Max Richter has recomposed “The Four Seasons” –performed by Berlin’s Konzerthaus Kammerochester under the direction of André de Ridder and with Daniel Hope as the violin soloist. And he has done it in the sense that he has opened the music, cut it up where he could, and rewritten Vivaldi’s four concertos separating parts – taking out instruments, above all (the spinet that acts as a bass is still there, marking the time, but it is covered up by light electronic arrangements; on the other hand, the strings sound loosened) – and reformulating other sections in looped structures. The great melodic fireworks of Spring and Autumn don’t always go off in all of their amplitude, but rather Richter prefers to stick to a few crucial notes, which pick up the aroma of the original composition and make it distinguishable, but displaced from its centre of gravity; then he organises them into an economic bunch of feelings and impressions and gives it all a more 20th-century touch. Richter’s “The Four Seasons”, overall, is closer to Jean Sibelius than to Vivaldi.
But he doesn’t always hit the nail on the head. The first movement of Summer is very similar to the original piece; until the end closes in a static loop that ends up seeming more similar to his own music on the 130701 label, on albums like “Memoryhouse”, than to the writing of the baroque concerto grosso. It is a very Nyman final minute. The same mechanism is at work in the first allegro in Autumn, which starts out identically and ends up desolate, in a hollow of teary strings in the style of the purest holy minimalism. The beginning of Winter shows that Richter gets stuck with start-ups, he has a hard time taming the quick tempo of the allegros; but as he rewrites the concertos, he gets more comfortable and the true essence of his expression explodes when the original Vivaldi score enters into a bucolic calm. In fact, the start of his “Recomposed” is a summary of the album’s greatest virtues: the 42 seconds of “Spring 0”, a glissando that leads to the highly famous first movement of the Spring concerto - very much picked here - is fragmented in Richter’s rewriting, impressionistic and cinematographic without the baroque decoration that one would expect in the beginning. From there on in, his techniques are those mentioned before: a reduction in the size and duration of the phrases into brief ideas that are repeated cyclically. The second allegro of Spring sounds more like the Nyman of “The Piano” or “Wonderland” than Vivaldi, and the adagio-presto-adagio of Summer doesn’t have any “presto” to it, but is rather a thorough collapse in mood, a spate of unhurried music.
And so although rewriting “The Four Seasons” seemed like a bad idea, Max Richter comes out of the challenge on top: he makes his a universal work - it is a complete de-contextualisation, not a variation. He treats it with respect, but without an absolute reverence. He is capable of reprogramming its mechanism and making everything sound recognisable, but new - the same, but different, familiar but strange - like the Venice that inspired Vivaldi’s music, which is so different today from what it was, but which is equally captivating.