Composed in 1723, Antonio Vivaldi’s four programmatic violin concertos The Four Seasons have in recent decades been the subject of degrees of revision ranging from switching the featured instrument (flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal) to switching all the instruments (the Chinese Baroque Players, who performed it mostly on traditional Chinese instruments: erhu, qung wan, di, cello and pipa) to introducing a wild card (on the album The Meeting, Dave Lombardo of thrash metal band Slayer played drums on Vivaldi pieces, including movements from The Four Seasons). None have been as drastic, or as interesting, as the efforts of the German-born British composer Max Richter.
Richter (born 1966) is classically trained, and co-founded the contemporary classical ensemble Piano Circus, but has also worked with electronic group Future Sound of London. His solo work combines ambient electronica with melodic minimalism, and in his recasting of The Four Seasons, everything is up for reconsideration except the classical instrumentation. Sometimes the melody is retained while elements of the accompaniment are reconstituted into a droning or minimalist style: Sometimes the rhythm is chopped up into uneven time signatures. Motifs are stretched through repetition in a way that reminds us of the similar construction of much Baroque music. Occasionally revisions practically result in a new melody, as in the opening movement of “Summer.” Especially attractive are the slow movements, where the violin tends to carry most or all of the melody over shimmering layers that suspend rhythmic impulse. In some fast movements, the opposite happens: the rhythmic elements of the orchestral accompaniment are foreground, giving the music a Glassian character that would fit easily in Koyaanisqatsi. Most of the time, though, Richter is inimitably Richter, even as he honors Vivaldi. It would have been very easy for Richter’s Four Seasons end up a cheap gimmick. Instead it aligns the Baroque and the modern in thoroughly enjoyable and memorable ways.