Artists: Glenn Gould, Wilhelm Kempff, Max Richter
Occupation: Pianists, performers (Gould, Kempff), composer (Richter)
Current release: Max Richter's The New Four Seasons: Vivaldi Recomposed is out via Deutsche Grammophon.
Article author: Tobias Fischer

To find out more about his thoughts on music, read our Max Richter interview.

Max Richter has always had an interesting relationship with the classical tradition and its century-long tug of war between the familiar and the new.

His first pieces were, in a way, personal interpretations of the minimalist style. On paper, these brought nothing new to the table. But, thankfully, music isn't played out on paper. Richter had an ingenious way of implanting well-known tropes into unfamiliar soil, of creating concepts that didn't just make for a nice press release, but were actually intriguing to listen to. A great example of this early phase was Infra, a fourty minute long composition which sounded like Philipp Glass waking from- and lapsing into fearful fever dreams.

Already two years before Infra was released, Richter had published another major work which presented his take on a popular form of the classical tradition, the variation. His version of Vivaldi's Four Seasons presented a “re-composition” of the Italian baroque composers themes which, when added up, amounted to the same thing and yet something else - confusing, at times, remarkably beautiful more often than not.

The New Four Seasons, his return to the piece, offers yet another approach. This time, Richter has worked with period instruments and kept the arrangements tighter and less luxurious, making the music sound even closer to the original than it did in 2012. It is a re-imagination which asks more questions than it may answer. But it is all the better for it.


What is composing, what is interpretation, what is variation? Those terms may seem to be clearly defined, but, really, they're not.

To understand them a bit better, and why they should matter, let's go back in time a bit. When I was just getting started as a classical music journalist around 2005, I would routinely ask performers what they would base their interpretation on. I found it bewildering that even musicians who otherwise had quite intriguing and provocative things to say would fall into line here and respond with the exact same wording:

That the only thing that mattered was the intention of the composer and that a classical performer's work, effectively, consisted in adequately transporting it to the stage or recorded medium.

To suggest otherwise, it seemed, was tantamount to heresy.


This seemed curious to me. Quite a few of the canonical composers who were also instrumentalists, such as Mozart and Liszt, had, during their lifetime, excelled at reinventing their own pieces in the moment and adding improvised segments to them. For them, the thought of performers mechanically repeating the same notes the exact same way would have been absurd. Well into the 1950s and 60s, many conductors agreed. They would perform pieces using extreme differences in tempo or mood, thus giving entirely different spins to familiar works which seemed to have been exhausted.

This tradition did not extend to already deceased composers. On the occasion of the American premiere of Ravel's famous “Boléro”, legendary and notorious conductor Arturo Toscanini played the one-movement piece so fast that its creator was furious and vowed never to work with Toscanini again. Ironically, the performance was a huge success to which Ravel would owe a lot of his remarkable global renown and wealth. (Coincidentally, that piece, too, was recomposed by electronic producers Moritzt von Oswald and Carl Craig for Deutsche Grammophon.)


Of course, to some, even Toscanini's theatrical take on tempo was not enough. Possibly the most radical interpretor of the recorded age was Glenn Gould. Those who thought little of him – and there were many who did, although at least some of that disdain was down to his manierisms and public persona – claimed that Gould wasn't so much giving a twist to the music, but simply playing it wrong. To those who adored him (and they outnumbered the first group by several factors), he was bringing something to the fore that had always been there - only no one had so far been able to recognise it. Gould slurred tempos, omitted intended repetitions, ignored indications and took the liberty of changing his thought, and approach, throughout the piece.

His most famous recording, of Bach's Goldberg Variations from 1955, wasn't just faster than any else had ever played it before. It was also wilder, more colourful, more dreamy, more exciting and more obnoxious than any other previous version. Towards the end of his life, in 1980, he returned to the piece once more – once again, it didn't sound anything like the first take.

I've always been partial to Gould's Goldberg which, by the way, was never his most radical album. In a way, Gould was taking liberties to achieve a clearly defined creative goal which he felt to be more important than any formal considerations. When conservatives would claim that you “couldn't do that”, he simply replied: Why not?

Gould's success, and likewise Richter's on the first Four Seasons, was not based on the premise that they went against conventions. It was because they did it with a plan – and a musically sound one, at that.


That said, the score is there for a reason. Being playful with it is one thing. Just doing your own thing with it is … well, doing your own thing. When German pianist Wilhelm Kempff played the Goldberg variations (in 1977), he simply left out the ornamentations that Bach had notated. To this day, Bach fans are debating whether or not this was permissable or simply an eccentricity. Kempff certainly made it work – his take on the opening Aria, the most instantly moving section of the work is as confronting as it is beguiling. But that is not to say he wasn't operating at the very border running between interpretation and recomposing.

Of course, Gould did not ignore the score. He just didn't always take it literally. Which can occasionally seem like the same thing, and requires both the performer and the listener to make fine distinctions. Certainly, he would never have thought of what he did as composing, although at times, his interpretations of some pieces, especially those he did not like but still played and recorded, were not far off the mark.


The recomposed Four Seasons from 2012 took that approach a whole step further.

Already Richter's comments at the time were revolutionary. This was the impulse behind the work, as he explained it at the time:

"When I was a young child I fell in love with Vivaldi's original, but over the years, hearing it principally in shopping centres, advertising jingles, on telephone hold systems and similar places, I stopped being able to hear it as music; it had become an irritant - much to my dismay! So I set out to try to find a new way to engage with this wonderful material, by writing through it anew - similarly to how scribes once illuminated manuscripts - and thus rediscovering it for myself. I deliberately didn't want to give it a modernist imprint but to remain in sympathy and in keeping with Vivaldi's own musical language."

In other workds, he was reclaiming the piece for himself, after having been exposed to it a few times too often.

That's a fair sentiment, of course. But it's clearly worlds away from the idea(l) that all those artists I interviewed two decades ago expressed: that all that matters is the intention of the composer and the goal of each artist should merely be to act as a tool to bring it to life.

Had his Four Seasons remained a niche phenomenon, no one would have given these words a second thought. However, the album was a global triumph, with single “Spring 1” raking in more than 65 million streams.

To a new generation of listeners, the kind of faithfulness that condemned Gould and Kempff to the sidelines and the realms of eccentricity mattered very little. The music, however - sympathetic, yes, to Vivaldi's language, but with an undeniable 21st century sound and sheen – most definitely did.

So where does that leave The New Four Seasons?

This time, Richter has brought the music closer to the more reduced sound of the original, a fact further emphasised by the inclusion of period instruments. While a friend of Richter's suggested that the difference in sound was similar to that between regular peanut butter and the crunchy variety, a more suitable comparison would be between regular peanut butter and an orange-flavoured variety – there's more tang here, more sour- and freshness, possibly even a few off-tastes.

Richter also added a moog synthesizer to the mix, the one choice here that seems to have been made more for the accompanying videos than musical reasons. His argument that he was looking for a vintage electronic instrument to complement the vintage acoustic ones makes no sense whatsoever – for the same reasons, he could have worn a vintage leather jacket for the occasion. Ultimately, however, the decision hardly detracts from the music. The moog, from what I can tell, mainly provides the basso continuo and adds more sonic power to the mix – not a bad thing for sure with baroque music, which has always had a certain punk energy to it and an affinity for dance forms.

The result is a dense, ebullient sound supported by a production that combines elements of a traditional classical recording with less dynamic and more punchy contemporary aesthetics. Side by side with Richter's 2012 version, the new one seems grittier, edgier and less meditative, not so much faster as more to the point and performed with a sense of fire.


The music will remain a question of taste. Its conceptual implications, on the other hand, are clearly intriguing. Right now, it can sometimes feel as though the classical core repertoire, if we leave aside Chopin playlists and classical samplers for focused working or meditation, has all but ceased to be a living genre among a younger demographic. If it wants to get away from the infusion drip of subsidies, sponsoring and $200 tickets, it needs to start building bridges into the present again.

I for one, think the impulse set by this recording are inspiring. They may only be a first step, but it's made me question my personal take on what interpretation can mean and how far its limits may go. Certainly, as Max Richter suggests, it seems, that you can take more liberties with an established piece than preivously thought, without paying it disrespect. Performances at the big concert halls may not follow straight away. But then again, they may no longer be the places where this music has its future.


Would Vivaldi have like the New Four Seasons? Honestly, who can tell. Provided he had been immortal enough to stick around for it, I suspect he wouldn't have minded a share of the royalties from those 65 millions streams (and counting), rather than dying in poverty and watching the world forget about his music for most of the 18th and 19th century.

What I am pretty sure about, however, is that he would have detested many of the supposedly faithful renditions of his work with neither soul nor power nor any spark of imagination – the kind which eventually led to this piece in the first place.

And besides, what could an artist ask for more than inspiring someone else to find their own voice and seeing one's seed still bearing fruit centuries after one's passing? Because that's exactly what has happened here: Richter has probably never sounded more like himself than he does on this album. "Will he keep on recomposing Vivaldi until death arrives?" a snarky commentator remarked on Youtube. The thing is: if Richter keeps coming up with these kinds of reinventions, why shouldn't he?