Max Richter was never supposed to be here.
Here is a composer whose music, if observed in a notated score, would seem utterly simple, devoid of creativity and ingenuity. This is music based on simple chords, predictable voice leadings, and basic piano patterns.
Such compositional tropes would, in the hands of nearly any other composer, be seen as jejune, derivative shlock. I’d be surprised if any university composition professor genuinely likes Max Richter’s music.
But when you press the play button on any of his last several albums, you are immediately struck with a gut-wrenching awe no other composer can elicit.
Maybe it’s his integration of electronics and samples into otherwise simple music, drawing up a surreal, imaginative landscape. Or maybe it’s how his recordings are produced, with the most precise amount of reverb and delay to make every note sound perfect.
It’s hard to pinpoint what makes Max Richter great and likeable. His music is certainly deeper than that of many contemporary film composers, but to call Max Richter only a film composer would be leaving behind a sustainable repertoire of concert music.
I’ve always seen his music as a distillation of fundamentals. It’s as if every measure he writes was once 10 times more complicated before his discriminating eraser came through. It’s as if he meant to write something much more intricate, only to be met with instantly tasteful restraint.
Voices works well in Max Richter’s canon, and deserves a decent acknowledgement. It’s not his masterpiece – that belongs to his ballet Infra and daringly imaginative Recomposed: Vivaldi, The Four Seasons, two albums I would unquestionably give 5 stars.
But, the music works well not only in the landscape of 21st-century post-minimalism, but also on the heels of a social justice revolution sweeping the globe.
Yes, you heard that last part right; the music is based on the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document adopted by the United Nations. The purpose? To enshrine the rights and freedoms of all human beings.
It is no coincidence a prominent black actress, KiKi Layne, serves as the narrator for this work, speaking text from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights over Max Richter’s slow, sustained string and piano textures.
Layne’s own performance on this recording is nothing short of impeccable, and one cannot help if she draws upon her own experiences while speaking through text that, in the throes of the BLM movement, feels as relevant now as it did in a post-World War II 1948.
This all being said, text alone, no matter how ethically or socially relevant, can automatically make a work of music ascend into greatness.
The biggest problem with Voices is that it’s a 50-minute work in one tempo – achingly slow. The music is pretty, and accompanies the text well, but if we are comparing Voices to the pantheon of great spoken-word classical compositions, it falls incredibly flat.
This is by no means coming close to Reich’s Different Trains, nor even Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale. Rather, I would liken Richter’s contribution to solid background music, meant to accompany an actress whose role in the recording is more important than the composer’s.
Maybe comparing this to Different Trains or A Soldier’s Tale isn’t fair. Max Richter would likely argue he never had those inspirations in mind when writing this music.
Fair, but when you create a classical music piece with spoken word, you will, whether to your liking or not, draw conclusions to the great masterpieces. It’s the natural order of things.
On this album, Max Richter does one thing quite well: he saves the best for last.
The album’s concluding number is a showstopper, and actually a previous solo work by Max Richter. Mercy, scored for just solo violin and piano, is a mini-masterpiece of minimalism. Those new to Max Richter’s oeuvre exploring his music for the first time will be delighted at Mari Samuelson’s amazing interpretation of the work once recorded by Hilary Hahn.
In a recent review of Lang Lang’s recording of The Goldberg Variations, we wrote that the thunderous pianist did not live up to his tremendous talent.
Here, Max Richter is, by contrast, showcasing his greatest talent of all – artistic restraint. This time around, he held back too much.