Max Richter: The Blue Notebooks

So often we anxiously anticipate certain releases only to find ourselves disappointed when they fail to match our expectations. Then there are less familiar ones for which our expectations are lower, yet we ultimately find ourselves floored when we discover how great they are. The Blue Notebooks is one such instance, and what a beautiful recording it is. Prior to its release, Richter studied piano with the late avant-garde Italian composer Luciano Berio and founded the classical group Piano Circus (an ensemble of six pianists that formed in 1989 to perform Steve Reich's Six Pianos) whose repertoire included works by Arvo Pärt and Philip Glass. Richter's first recording, Memoryhouse, an ambitious fusion of modern classical music, electronics, and field recordings, was recorded with The BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. In addition, his resume includes contributions to The Future Sound of London's Dead Cities and Roni Size's In the Mode.

Released on Fat-Cat's off-shoot label 130701, Richter's second album, The Blue Notebooks, features a small core of musicians, specifically Richter on piano, violinists Louisa Fuller and Natalie Bonner, viola player John Mecalfe, and cellists Chris Worsey and Philip Sheppard. While piano and strings dominate, organ playing (on “Iconography” and “Organum”') and field recordings (environmental sounds like the crows at the end of “Shadow Journal”) also appear. Accompanied by typewriter sounds, actress Tilda Swinton (Orlando) reads excerpts from Frank Kafka's The Blue Octavo Notebooks and Polish author Czseslaw Milosz's Hymn Of The Pearl and Unattainable Earth. Her intermittent cameos add variety and contrast to the otherwise instrumental pieces (although the typewriter sounds arguably literalize the concept too greatly and might have been better omitted). Such details might suggest that a daunting experimental style dominates the album. On the contrary, the music is delectably melodic and eminently accessible. The eponymous opener sets the tone, its sparse piano chords suggestive of Satie. The strings that dominate the next piece, the melancholic “On the Nature of Daylight,” are by turns hymnal and poignant, with the lyrical qualities of the violin playing calling to mind Alexander Balanescu's sweet sound. The elegiac mood is maintained throughout the eleven tracks but the consistency of mood is offset by the continual changes in instrumentation. “Iconography,” for example, features a children's choir accompanied by organ whereas other pieces, like “Vladimir 's Blues,” spotlight Richter's understated piano playing. His style is minimalistic, with traces of Glass, Part, Bryars, and Nyman noticeably surfacing throughout. “Vladimir 's Blues' borrows Glass's signature see-saw style, while the funereal “The Trees” highlights Nymanesque piano and violin parts. In fact, “Iconography”' is textbook Holy Minimalism: austere and magisterial while also sparse and uncluttered. In spite of being derivative, The Blue Notebooks is a lovely and affecting work whose individual pieces cumulatively deepen its melancholy mood. Furthermore, at forty minutes it's the perfect length, as it's long enough to indelibly imprint itself upon one's memory yet not so long that its sombre mood turns oppressive.

March 2004