Richter: Voices (CD review)

Max Richter, piano, organ, synthesizers; Kiki Lane, narrator; Robert Ziegler, conductor; Grace Davidson, soprano; Mari Samuelsen, violin solo; Ian Burdge, cello solo; Camilla Pay, harp; Joby Burgess, percussion; plus various other singers and instrumentalists. Decca  B0032383-02.

By Karl W. Nehring

The German-born British composer Max Richter (b. 1966) has made a name for himself by striving to bring together elements of more traditional "classical" music with more contemporary instruments and sounds. His most well-known composition is probably his reworking of Vivaldi's Four Seasons (reviewed by JJP), while perhaps his most notorious composition is his 8-hour overnight opus Sleep. His 2020 release of Voices comes at a time when not only is the world suffering from a deadly pandemic, but also from cynical and sinister political machinations that threaten democratic institutions and societal norms throughout the world. The true, the good, and the beautiful are under attack by small-minded greedy egos in leadership positions. In a small but noble way, Richter’s Voices speaks to this perilous world situation by presenting words of hope and inspiration while reassuring us with some soothing and reassuring music.

Richter is straightforward in his rationale for his unusual composition: “ I like the idea of a piece of music as a place to think, and it is clear we all have some thinking to do at the moment. We live in a hugely challenging time and, looking around at the world we have made, it’s easy to feel hopeless or angry. But, just as the problems we face are of our own making, so their solutions are within our reach, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is something that offers us a way forward. Although it isn’t a perfect document, the declaration does represent an inspiring vision for the possibility of better and kinder world.” You can see a brief video with Richter explaining more about the music and the recording here:

The work had its world premiere in February 2020, with more than 60 musicians performing live on the  London stage. According to the composer, the music involves a radical reimagining of the traditional orchestra formation. “It came out of this idea of the world being turned upside down, our sense of what’s normal being subverted, so I have turned the orchestra upside down in terms of the proportion of instruments.” He has scored the work for 12 double basses, 24 cellos, 6 violas, 8 violins, and a harp. They are joined by a wordless 12-piece choir as well as Richter on keyboards, violin soloist Mari Samuelsen, cello soloist Ian Burdge, percussionist Joby Burgess, soprano Grace Davidson and conductor Robert Ziegler.

The CD recording of Voices comprises two discs. The first highlights, as you might guess, voices, starting with a recording of Eleanor Roosevelt introducing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The recitation of this document is then conducted by various voices in various languages, with Richter’s music laying down a musical foundation. The second disc consists of the ten musical tracks mixed without the voices. The first disc is interesting to hear, with its blending of voices in many different languages, accents, and timbres along with musical interludes of great beauty. To be honest, though, it is not the kind of CD most listeners would want to play over and over again, making the inclusion of the second disc a welcome addition, for it is a substantial and satisfying collection of well-recorded music that is conducive to thought, relaxation, and straightforward musical enjoyment. Highlights include Richter’s meditative piano complementing Burdge’s earnest cello on track 2 (“Origins), the skillful blending of chorus and orchestra on track 3 (“Journey”), the artful blending of acoustic and electronic sounds on track 7 (“Murmuration”), and the soulful playing of Mari Samuelsen on track 10 (“Mercy”).

The engineering is truly top-notch. Blending orchestra, voices, recordings, electronic effects, and so forth could easily have ended up sounding gimmicky, but the recording comes across as quite natural and easy to enjoy. There is no harshness on top, but plenty of power on the bottom when needed. All in all, Voices is an unusual composition, but a stimulating and satisfying intellectual, emotional, and musical achievement.

Bonus Recommendation: Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen (b. 1935) is hardly a household name, but this BIS recording of three of his works for orchestra by the Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Okko Kamu is well worth an audition. The program opens with Sunrise Serenade, which features trumpeters Kjell-Âke Pettersson and Per Falck. In under eight minutes, this piece creates an atmospheric mood of mystery and anticipation within a spacious sonic setting. Next up is the relatively brief (15:35) Symphony No. 2 (Symphonic Dialogue for Solo Percussion Player and Orchestra), a one-movement composition that highlights the energetic and versatile playing of percussionist Gert Mortensen. But no, the piece is much more than just banging around, it creates a musical world of wonder and mystery. The disc closes with Sallinen’s substantial Symphony No. 6 “From a New Zealand Diary,” which was commissioned by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. The composer vacationed in New Zealand in early 1989 to help prepare himself for composing the work, which he completed in 1990. Its four movements are rich and atmospheric. None of the music on this disc is harsh, dissonant, or random-sounding. Indeed, it is inviting and rewarding, and recorded in excellent BIS sound by engineer Robert von Bahr.


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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

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa