Voices was released on 31 July and is Max Richter’s ninth studio album, following on from pioneering recordings including The Blue Notebooks (2004), named by The Guardian as one of the best classical music works of the 21st Century, Recomposed: Vivaldi -The Four Seasons (2012) was a chart-topper and his landmark eight-and-a-half hour concert work Sleep (2015) (which this writer was lucky enough to experience performed live in the New Zealand International Festival of the Arts in 2018).
Voices begins with Eleanor Roosevelt reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, the pledge arising out of the tragedies of World War II. This Declaration goes on to be spoken by voices of all ages in up to 70 different languages -
All human beings are born free and equal, in dignity and rights…. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person. No-one shall be held in slavery and servitude….
The seed of Voices grew ten years ago but its timing in 2020 is urgently relevant. The Declaration is Richter’s reminder in a world halted by the COVID-19 virus, for people disenchanted by the democratic process, and received in the light of the tragic events in the US that led to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. So how does this album work in these troubled times?
The first track, All Human Beings opens with the Declaration before drawing us into a chamber of deep strings and choral voices. The spoken voices return throughout the work, layering, whispering, urging us to return to our pledge. And when we come to Chorale with its Baroque, Górecki-like feel, this finds a real emotional depth. Profound bass strings, the slow push and pull of chords shifting. Then, lifting up through the clouds towards the end of the piece is the angelic tone of soprano Grace Davidson who invites us to turn our faces to the light as she ascends to top C.
Richter turns the orchestral configuration 'upside down' to create a sombre, bottom-heavy timbre with 13 double-bassists, 23 cellists and only 6 viola players and 8 violinists. Yet this is not a pessimistic work, it has a beauty and a core that believes in our good natures.
However, by Little Requiems, the continuation of words does lose its efficacy. Even the mellifluous voice of actor KiKi Layne as the ‘main character’ of the piece could step aside and just let the instruments carry the message. And taken over a whole album and the repeating of the word recordings, I wonder if the message and themes could have been distilled into a couple of strong pieces.
The final track Mercy was originally written ten years ago as a response to shocking revelations about Guantanamo Bay. Alongside the epic sweep of Chorale, this is the highlight of the album and brings us back to trademark Richter, exquisite moments of dissonance that ache for resolve. This slow evolving tonality creates a space in which Richter's manifesto truly resonates. In this final piece Mari Samuelson’s searing violin soars over simple, grounded piano phrases.
Richter says he likes to create music that gives you time to think, and in Voices he succeeds. He offers an exquisite aural space around the angst, inviting us back to kindness and respect for all humankind in a year in which it is sorely needed.
Listen to Max Richter's Voices HERE
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Released: 31 Jul 2020