Max Richter - Three Worlds: Music From Woolf Works

by David Bruggink Rating:8 Release Date:2017-01-20
With the release of Memoryhouse in 2002, the world was introduced to Max Richter's unique talent for combining sounds that seemed to both satisfy and defy the label of "modern classical." It's a label that's all too easily applied to any music that seems as if it could soundtrack dramatic moments in independent films, and while this certainly applies to much of Richter's music, he has consistently produced albums that manage to surprise with their creativity even as they subtly overwhelm with their emotional impact.  

After the impressive feat of composing an 8-hour album, and a very good one at that, Richter now takes a respite from his frequent excursions into music for film and television and returns to Deutsche Grammaphon with a concept album. This time the inspiration is English author Virginia Woolf, and Richter's compositions provide the score for a ballet now being performed at London's Royal Opera House. Readers may be happy to know that my lack of familiairity with Woolf's oeuvre (sadly, my experience is limited to picturing Nicole Kidman's prosthetic nose in The Hours) did nothing to dampen my enjoyment of the album.

After a short interlude featuring Ms. Woolf herself speaking intriguingly about the nature of words - "full of echoes, of memories," binding cultures together across centuries - 'In the Garden' begins unhurriedly, caressingly, with melodies that immediately take their place among Richter's most beautiful. With its graceful strings mingling with piano lines that seem simple at first blush, it blossoms according to his penchant for gradually touching the transcendent. Epitomizing the intimate "Richter" sound, 'In the Garden' gives way to the epic 'War Anthem.' Coursing with sadness, it also carries the hopefulness that surfaces in much of his work.

The album is divided into three separate sections, however, each one corresponding to a different novel by Woolf, and as one gets to the second section, the music begins to go in unexpected directions. While 'Modular Astronomy' and 'Entropy' exhibit familiar chord patterns (drawn from La Folia, utilised by many composers since the 17th century), the former sees Richter combining a vigorous orchestral approach with intense side-chaining, a technique that's applied more often in techno than classical, while the latter is a skeletal synthesizer piece that nevertheless pulses with Richter's warm melodic touch. Compared with the lengthier tracks of the first section, the second consists of shorter pieces that often blur the line between analog and digital, classical and electronic. Richter has always treated individual instruments with great respect, and this applies equally to the most elegant of violins as well as energetically arpeggiating synths. 

As the final section begins, the crashing of waves accompanies Gillian Andersen as she reads Woolf's suicide note. Stunning in its quietude, the piece initially recalls the piercing and unadorned works of the most revered of sacred minimalists, Arvo Pärt. The juxtaposition between the plaintive string tones and Anderson's performance of Woolf's note, poignant yet conversational in its intimacy, is truly transfixing.  

Woolf's words at the album's beginning suggest that in words themselves, one finds traces of history, of memories, of links between people and their own worlds. In Three Worlds, Richter seems to make a similar argument for music, which speaks with its own language, and allows me to enter into Woolf's world. Even if I know very little about her, his music allows me to feel a connection to her emotions and the emotions of her characters. At the same time, it charts its own course, forges its own memories, and further acquaints me with a composer to whom I am always eager to return.