Max Richter: From The Art Of Mirrors

Max Richter: Songs From Before

Songs From Before perpetuates the approach of Max Richter's previous FatCat outing, 2004's The Blue Notebooks, though this time Robert Wyatt recites passages by Haruki Murakami in place of Tilda Swinton reading from Kafka's The Blue Notebooks; also like before, the one-time Luciano Berio student and Piano Circus co-founder mixes piano pieces with electronically-oriented vignettes and string-based settings. Much like its predecessor, Songs From Before at times echoes the work of Arvo Pärt and especially Michael Nyman; he and Richter both favour an engagingly melodic and melancholic style, and typically constellate instruments around a piano nucleus. Richter parts company with his well-known brethren, however, by extending the playing field beyond ‘post-classical' to electronic collages and spoken-word passages.

Reminiscent of Pärt's “ Pari Intervallo,” “Song” opens the album beautifully by juxtaposing a simple church organ pattern with mournful violin playing. Wyatt's recitation introduces “Flowers for Yulia” with the bulk of the piece dedicated to elegiac string writing. Though Wyatt's interjections are brief, they impose a vaguely defined narrative framework upon the work; adding to their appeal is the delivery itself which, like his singing, is distinctive yet informal. The peaceful “Harmonium” features minimal vibes' figures cascading like droplets onto a willowy electronic base while mournful strings gently surge in “Sunlight” alongside a violin's yearning melody. Grainy shortwave radio noise dominates the electronic interludes, drawing a direct connection the album's title. The recording has much to recommend it: despite the echoes of composers' works, there's no questioning the beauty of Richter's string lamentations and ruminative piano settings, and Songs From Before is refreshingly succinct at 37 minutes in length.

Remove the recitations and Richter's pieces are still so evocative they warrant the appellation ‘cinematic' (his CV includes production work for Future Sound of London and Vashti Bunyan, plus scores for film projects like Stanislaw Mucha's Hope and Darren Almond's Siberia ). How fitting, then, to discover that Richter's The Art of Mirrors (issued by the UK downloads-only label Seven Things) is musical accompaniment for never-before-seen films from the Derek Jarman archive (around sixty S8mm film works produced between 1970 and 1983). Interestingly, while Songs From Before is comprised of short compositions threaded into a whole, The Art of Mirrors is a single-movement, 52-minute piece; however, it's a rather misleading detail—more a matter of CD indexing—since the two works are equally episodic in nature. It's not an unrelated composition either, as The Art of Mirrors opens with the sparse organ chords of “Song” and gentle vibes of “Harmonium,” and “Sunlight” surfaces too. The longer work is a live recording though there's little that sonically identifies it as such beyond modest stage noise and the closing applause. One thing that recommends the live presentation is that it builds to a ravishing climax whereas the studio set ends less dramatically with a piano coda (“From the Rue Vilin”). Obviously The Art of Mirrors is less concise than Songs From Before yet still provides a natural companion to it. In a perfect world, the release would be available in a DVD format too so that we might view Jarman's visuals alongside Richter's music.

December 2006