By Karl W. Nehring
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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lF6No3T2ulY
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 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.