Max Richter: From Sleep (CD Review)

Max Richter, piano, organ, synthesizers, electronics; American Contemporary Music Ensemble (Ben Russell, Yuki Numata Resnick, violin; Caleb Burhans, viola; Clarice Jensen, Brian Snow, cello; Grace Davidson, soprano). Deutsche Grammophon 479 5258.

By Karl. W. Nehring

Max Richter (b. 1966) is a leading figure among composers working to bring together elements of what we generally consider "classical" music and more contemporary instrumentation and styles of music. For those who follow current classical trends, Richter's most well known composition is probably his reworking of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, released by DG in 2012 and picked up by various classical outlets around the world. It may have not been a "big hit," but it sold well and brought increased attention to the German-born British composer who is now based in London.

But his most notorious composition is undoubtedly Sleep, an 8-hour magnum opus from 2015 that was released as a boxed set comprising eight CDs plus a Blu-ray disc that contained the whole piece for those who might desire to play the music uninterruptedly while they yes, slept. According to the composer, "It's a piece that is meant to be listened to at night. I hope that people will fall asleep while listening to it, because the project is also a personal exploration into how music interacts with consciousness – another fascination for me."

Believe it or not, Sleep has been performed live in numerous venues, with the audience being invited to come not only to hear the piece, but of course to sleep through it, with bedding being provided. A bit of a Bizarro World Woodstock, if you will…

Not to worry though, friends, I am not about to set off on a detailed, track-by-track exposition of all 31 tracks (with many lasting more than 20 minutes) of an eight-hour recording. Even if I had auditioned it (which I haven't), and even were I then somehow buzzed up enough to sit down and write such a review without falling asleep at my keyboard before completing it, I am afraid the end product would likely put you to sleep before you would be able to finish it.  Instead, I am commenting upon a single CD, From Sleep, which contains seven tracks that were recorded during the same sessions that produced the Sleep recording but were not included in that release. From Sleep was released not only to give listeners a taste of what the full version would be like, but also to provide a coherent, satisfying musical experience in its own right. Having not yet experienced either a live or recorded rendition of Sleep in its entirety, I am unqualified to comment on From Sleep's success as representative of the full release, but I hope I am at least marginally qualified in some respects at least to declare that From Sleep does provide an enjoyable musical experience.

Max Richter
The track listing for From Sleep is as follows: 1. Dream 3 (in the midst of my life), 2. Path 5 (delta), 3. Space 11 (invisible pages over), 4. Dream 13 (minus even), 5. Space 21 (petrichor), 6. Path 19 (yet frailest), 7. Dream 8 (late and soon). These titles are reflective of those of the full release, which includes Dreams 1, 2, 11, 19, 17, and 0; Path and Path 17; and Spaces 26, 2, and 17; as well as many other titles not represented in From Sleep.

The net result is a pleasant, soothing, relaxing hour of listening. Several themes weave in and out of the tracks. On the surface, the music sounds much the same throughout the tracks with the same names, but with subtle variations that mean the music is never static. The "Dream" tracks – 1, 4, and 7 -- form the backbone of the program, comprising the opening, middle, and closing selections, with the four "Path" and "Space" tracks symmetrically filling up the rest of the hour-long program.

The opening track, "Dream 3 (in the midst of my life)." is in itself somewhat symmetrical, opening and closing with stately chords on the keyboard, but with strings slowly weaving their lines over keyboard accompaniment throughout its central measures. "Path 5 (delta)" features soothing soprano voice lines combined with keyboards and electronics, including a warm underlay of organ. "Space 11 (invisible pages over)" opens with synth chords and continues with rich-sounding washes of sound, including a deep bass foundation – yes, it sounds spacey. "Dream 13 (minus even)" opens with cello and keyboard, with the cello carrying the main melody in subtle variation. As the track continues, the keyboard sometimes sounds almost harp-like, with some synth and strings hovering above the keyboard accompaniment, all gently pushing forward. "Space 21 (petrichor)" opens with some bass synth notes and continues as a multilayer synth piece. "Path 19 (yet frailest)" sounds much like Path 5, but with instruments rather than voice carrying the melody.  The final track "Dream 8 (late and soon)" reverses that strategy by reintroducing the vocal line.

The sound quality throughout is rich and full-range, with plenty of warmth despite the inclusion of electronic sounds. Indeed, there is no sense of edginess to the electronic sounds and the acoustic instruments are well served tonally. However, the usual considerations of sound stage and imaging and such are of course pretty much obviated by the overdubbing and mix. 

Hopefully assuming that you have yet been lulled into slumber by my somnolent prose, I will conclude by noting that the liner notes include interesting brief essays by Richter, Tim Cooper, and neuroscientist David Eagleman, with whom Richter had consulted in preparation for undertaking such a project. There is even an intriguing and appropriate quotation from the nineteenth-century poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Enticed by this CD, I may someday go crazy and acquire the full-blown Sleep package, but if I do, I hereby promise not to write a review featuring a full-blown (overblown!) track-by-track exegesis!

KWN

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

3 comments:

  1. To provide some neutral balance of potential reader interest, I think that Karl's next review should feature Pachelbel's Canon.
    Bryan

    ReplyDelete
  2. But that music is even more somnolent! ;-)

    ReplyDelete

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

Contact Information

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa