March 12th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Several items missing from list of the big spend

CANBERRA OBSERVED Greens back Coalition in Senate voting reform

ENERGY Nuclear reprocessing feasible here: SA inquiry

HISTORY OF TAIWAN Fifty-year journey from poverty to prosperity

SPEECH IN PARLIAMENT Warning: wolves in anti-bullying clothing

EDITORIAL Turnbull ignores three elephants in the room

DOMESTIC AND FAMILY VIOLENCE Family portrait or ideological caricature?

OPINION Goebbels revisited: the attack on Cardinal Pell

FAMILY AND SOCIETY SSCA apologists try to shrug off media furore

EUTHANASIA Legitimate denial of choice at end of life (Part II of two)

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Welcome backdown on vaccinations

ENVIRONMENT Food bowl emptied due to conservationist myopia

MUSIC Much-loved concertos clouded with melancholy

CINEMA Spotlight in the darkness: Spotlight

BOOK REVIEW Governing Middle-earth

BOOK REVIEW A land of contrasts


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Much-loved concertos clouded with melancholy

by David James

News Weekly, March 12, 2016

Recomposed by Max Richter
Vivaldi: The Four Seasons

Deutsche Grammophon
Listen online on YouTube

Reviewed by David James


Re-imaginings are not common in modern classical music. For most of the first half of the twentieth century there was a feverish pursuit of the new, endeavours such as the tuneless use of atonality (known as serialism).

When the possibilities for the novel were largely exhausted – harmonic experimentation is, in the end, arithmetically limited – classical composition entered into a rather uneasy relationship with the past. History still weighed heavily on modern composers. What do you do when so much great music has already been produced?

But it was no longer a matter of discovering ways of deviating from that past. Composition started to enter more of a postmodern phase of picking what appeals from the tradition, and, sometimes at least, trying to produce a musical outcome from these fragments. The pursuit of novelty has, in more recent decades, been replaced by a question mark.

Max Richter is to be congratulated for taking a more aggressive approach to history. He has reworked Antonio Vivaldi’s classic The Four Seasons because, like many of us, he has become tired of endless repeats of the popular work.

Richter has discarded about three-quarters of Vivaldi’s original, substituted his own music and added some light electronics. The aim is, however, to retain the basic shape and spirit of the original.

The result is musical, but somewhat mixed. The upper voices often become cluttered and there is a heavy reliance on slow bass movements for unity, which is a feature of Richter’s compositional style. This is very unlike Vivaldi, whose counterpoint is always elegant. Whether this is a “problem” is a matter for debate.

There are some sections from the original that Richter leaves unchanged, which encourages the listener to see where he takes it. These moments function like spots of time – or perhaps spots of Vivaldi.

Having taken Vivaldi’s familiar ostinato effects and cadences, Richter then adds additional layers and develops them repetitively until bringing the music to an abrupt halt. Sometimes the writing is like a fantasia, sometimes there is slow-moving chromatic harmony with tortured string effects, sometimes it is more like a harmonic extension of Vivaldi’s themes.

The effect is to take Baroque certainty and fracture it – a very un-Baroque effect. Harmonic direction is replaced with harmonic repetition, without direction. The music simply stops; it does not reach a destination.

The emotion evoked is accordingly very different. Vivaldi has a lightness and vitality that, in combination with his powerful rhythms, produces a sense of subtle exaltation, of having arrived somewhere. Richter’s music is melancholy, even mournful, a dark reflection of the original. Vivaldi’s music is satisfying; Richter’s is not.

It is hard to see how, in the complex tapestry of contemporary classical music, Richter could have done much else. But what is missing is melodic invention. At this level, Richter does not take Vivaldi’s music anywhere. His additions are nearly all polyphonic, harmonic and textural.

The aesthetic implications are intriguing. Richter has produced a musical response to time and history. It is all but impossible to go back to the original experience of a piece of music, even the very greatest. Indeed, the key to great music is that, although it becomes familiar, and the initial surprise or delight is inevitably lost through repeated listening, its very familiarity adds to its depth. This is especially true of the greatest composers, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.

Vivaldi, who is not in that pantheon, does tend to pall and Richter is correct to protest at endless repetition of The Four Seasons. Vivaldi was an exceptional writer of melodies and his rhythms are distinctive and powerful. But there is not the sense in his music of hidden depths; the effects are very much on the surface.

With this in mind it is worth pondering on why Richter’s endings are so abrupt. He is encouraging us to listen to the silence; when the music ends. This is perhaps his most profound point. In some ways, Vivaldi’s music has ended. When we listen to it, we are, at least to some extent, returning to a past that has gone, rather than visiting it afresh, experiencing a new present.

Richter is giving us that new present by taking the music somewhere else. But that, too, will end. If we can become overly familiar with Vivaldi, we can also become overly familiar with Richter. In art, familiarity may not breed contempt, but it certainly can breed staleness or tiredness.

That is certainly what Richter thinks of performances of The Four Seasons. His effort to re-imagine it stands on its own as an enjoyable and clever composition. And the rest – is silence.

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TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99

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