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Max Richter (live at The Barbican)

17 May 2016

This is the first of two sold-out shows for Max Richter at The Barbican and there is a buzz around the audience about how two beautiful and intense albums will translate live. For starters this is no rock’n’roll concert, so there is no-one viewing the entire gig down their phone, in fact no one even takes a photo, which was quite wonderful. The mood in the hall has a kind of beautiful, tranquil quality about it, as if people don’t want to make too much noise before the performance even starts.

A warm round of applause greets the artists as they enter the stage. Richter then proceeds to tell us what we are able to expect from tonight, which is 34 minutes of The Blue Notebooks (very precise) and 90 minutes of Sleep, a piece that normally lasts eight and a half hours.

The Blue Notebooks begin with a melancholy piano piece that has someone reading extracts from Franz Kafka’s Blue Octavo Notebooks over the top. This the drifts into a solemn lament played by the string quartet that are placed next to Richter’s keyboard setup. The piece is quite moving, mixing elements of Philip Glass-style repetition in a slow drift around old cityscapes. The feeling I get from the entire piece is the fragility of memory and a certain distance; or loneliness at being separated from the rest of humanity, even though you are walking down a busy street.

The whole of the suite has a very minor key quality about it, and some sections like “Horizon Variations” conjure up the sound of Brian Eno and Harold Budd’s Ambient work in their overall mood of detachment and otherworldliness. Sometimes the sound is heartbreaking, at other points — like with “Organum”’s stately organ melody — it feels strangely uplifting as arpeggios tumble over each other and cascade down over the audience’s head. By the time the whole of The Blue Notebooks has finished, you feel strangely breathless and somehow removed as well.

Based on Gustav Mahler’s symphonic works, Sleep has a very different feel to it. To go in with the preconception that the piece would be soporific or even languid in some way would miss the point of this mammoth work. The fact that we are only hearing and hour and a half of Sleep makes me realise half way through tonight’s performance how overwhelming the piece can be. When I listen to it at home, it transforms the space where its playing into the place of sleep and, somehow, subtly changes the atmosphere of that room.

“Dream 3” is a majestic drifting lullaby of a track that shifts around its minor key to give you almost something transcendental to usher you off into the land of nod. “Path 5 (Delta)” has one of the most beautiful and heart-breaking vocal sounds I have ever heard live, the repeating melody makes it even more so as each time the refrain comes around you feel you are being taken into the uneasy dream state of loss and yearning.

Then, halfway through the performance, you almost feel yourself drifting away from your body as if you are separate from your surroundings (this feeling stayed with me even on my journey home). You begin to view things as an outsider looking in as the music hovers around you, intangible at times, like looking at figures at the edge of a landscape. When it finishes and the applause starts, you are almost shaken back into reality, or at least some state of it.

The sound at The Barbican was quite wonderful and perfect for Richter’s music. It made it seem as if the instruments were enveloping you from all sides and that you were cocooned in their fragility. London seemed somewhat translucent afterwards.

-Gary Parsons-

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