What’s to like?
How to deconstruct a celebrated suite of music, reconstruct it into something completely new, and then revisit it ten years later, using variations of the original instruments to create something that’s just as unique and individual, but also offering a listening experience that improves on the original.
The low down
Reissues, remixes and remasters. That seems to be the name of the game in the music business these days, resulting in diminishing returns in most cases. However, what if you took a celebrated suite of music – Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons – broke it down to its essence and then recomposed it, shaping it into something that sounds familiar yet new and original?
That’s essentially what composer Max Richter did in 2012, forensically opening up the original score, note by note, and then subtly altering melodies or patterns to the point where the listener is challenged to work out precisely what has changed, even though they know they’re hearing something new. Richter also reshaped the textures of the stringed instruments to allow space to add in synthesisers and bring new layers to the music, bridging the traditions of classical music and the ambient sounds of modern electronica.
The synths are so delicately woven around and underneath the strings that even on headphones you’re not quite sure whether the music is being created by the old or the new, but the end result feels like a natural symbiosis, and the listener simply settles in to enjoy the music in its purest form.
So why revisit such a successful experiment? Well, the gift (and the curse) of the artist is the restless need to continually experiment and create, and Richter is an inspiring example of a musician seeking to push the boundaries of music. You need only experience his eight hour Sleep opus, to realise that this is a composer with a need to stretch himself and follow his imagination. (You can read my thoughts on Sleep here and here.)
And so it is with The New Four Seasons. Richter originally conceived his version as a multi-dimensional project, and this rendition has been recorded with new collaborators – The Chineke! Orchestra – bringing a fresh perspective to the compositions. However, instead of using contemporary polymer-based strings, the players have opted for gut strings which provide a warmer, rich tone quality, and complex, colourful sound. These are the kind of strings that would have been the standard for players in Vivaldi’s day, and he would have envisioned their particular sound when he composed his Four Seasons.
And in a similar retro approach, Richter has side-lined contemporary electronic instruments in favour of a vintage seventies Moog, which he describes as “the Stradivarius of the synthesiser”, and has recorded this version of the Four Seasons entirely on analogue equipment to give it a warmer and more natural ambience.
So has his experiment borne fruit? Well, having initially approached this reimagining with a degree of scepticism, I would now say resoundingly, yes.
The differences might not be immediate if you’re listening to the new version on a hi-fi or streaming, but once you put the headphones on it’s a totally immersive listening experience. As my own experiment, I lined up the 2012 edition and the 2022 edition back to back on my mp3 player and compared each edition, track by track. It quickly became apparent to me that the 2022 edition is noticeably different, and in my modest opinion, possibly even an improvement on the 2012 edition.
The notes and melodies haven’t changed, but the overall sound and atmosphere has. Beforehand, I’d felt that the 2012 edition sounded fine and couldn’t be improved on, but now I feel that the 2022 edition has opened up the music in unexpected ways, almost adding a third dimension to the sound. (We’ll ignore the fourth dimension – time – as it literally stands still for the forty minutes that you’re absorbed in the music!)
I’ve always respected Richter’s skill in weaving the electronics and synths through his music in such a subtle way that they’re barely perceptible, with the classical strings dominating the sound; but if you were to strip away the synths, you’d suddenly realise how big a contribution they make to the complete score.
On this edition of The Four Seasons, the Moog seems to have been primarily used for sub-bass frequencies, bringing a depth and presence that traditional strings can’t reach, but it’s very subtle. You can hear little pulses throbbing away gently in the background, but it’s the bass that really benefits from the Moog’s presence.
Take for example, the music in Spring 3. This is quite a jaunty, uplifting piece of music as Spring recedes and Summer arrives, and on the 2012 version you can feel that sense of excitement and anticipation. However, with the deeper bass tones on the 2022 edition, the music’s tempo takes on added impetus, as if you can see the light at the end of the tunnel and suddenly want to sprint to the end.
Another example might be Summer 2, which to my ears sounds a tad melancholy and reflective on the 2012 edition, but the bass on the 2022 edition turns the music into something more optimistic and forward-looking. By contrast, the synth effects on the 2012 version of Summer 3, (which sound not unlike those employed by Pink Floyd on the track Welcome To The Machine), have been entirely removed from the 2022 edition. So Richter is clearly not afraid to mix things up to reach his desired sound.
However, the key thing is that the classical strings still dominate the music, and there is something about the way they have been placed in the 2022 audio mix that makes them sound warmer, airier and more natural sounding than on the previous edition. As I was listening back to back, the strings on the previous version now sounded too far forward in the mix by comparison, taking up all the space. Here on the 2022 edition, every note seems to find the place it needs to be, exposing the emotion that the players must have been feeling as they performed the music, particularly solo violinist Elena Urioste.
To be clear, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the 2012 version – it’s well mixed, with lots of clarity and range and a modest volume. However, for me, the 2022 version is an improved listening experience, adopting the same parameters as described above, but adding a greater sense of space and presence by going down the analogue recording route.
Fans of the 2012 edition will find a lot to enjoy with this recomposed version, and perhaps come away with a refreshed appreciation of how talented a composer Max Richter is. However, if you’ve yet to experience this engaging reimagining of The Four Seasons, then I’d recommend heading straight to this new edition, bearing in mind Richter’s observation that “there can be many doorways into a piece…, when a listener encounters a (new) piece of music…that meeting point is absolutely unique to them.”