Barbican 24 January 14
Memoryhouse was Berlin-based, former Piano Circus leader Max Richter’s 2002 solo debut album which originally appeared on the BBC’s short-lived Late Junction record label. Its compound of emotionally charged chamber orchestra works, poignantly simple solo piano etudes and atmosphere-laden electronic interludes provided the artistic breakthrough for a polymath artist who moves easily between classical composition, film soundtracks (notably Waltz For Bashir, Ari Folman’s Academy Award-nominated 2008 animated documentary) and production and arrangement work for everyone from Roni Size to Vashti Bunyan.
Designed as a suite of soundtracks for a series of imagined historical documentaries, on record Memoryhouse oscillates between wistfulness and rhapsody, impressionistically evoking, but never full defining themes of nostalgia, history, loss and enchantment, it’s haunting, recurring melodic themes sewn into arrangements which variously recall the work of Philip Glass, John Tavener, Michael Nyman and Arvo Pärt but which, partly thanks to the electronic components, largely transcend their influences to establish a subtly affecting, sustained mood which is both deeply personal and universally accessible.
For this, the first major ‘live’ reading of the work in full, the performance area of the Barbican’s main auditorium is simply but effectively lit by a web of flickering, suspended white bulbs beneath which the serried ranks of the BBC Symphonic Orchestra, under the baton of op-haired conductor André de Ridder, all but fill the stage’s capacious dimensions, leaving just enough room at the front for Richter’s grand and digital pianos, celeste, Moog and laptop, between which the composer, clad in posh suit blazer, Levis and scuffed Converse trainers, moves throughout the performance.
The next hour-and-a-half provides more than a few moments of goose- pimple-inducing transcendence, not least the exquisitely aching ‘Sarajevo’, which showcases soprano Katherine Manley’s glacially pure tone set against luminous harp, ever-swelling banks of counterpoint violins and imperious brass, and the concluding ‘Last Days’, given the full orchestral kitchen-sink treatment, its frenetic string cadences, fusillades of French horn and deep thunderclaps of percussion rippling through the audience with a palpable emotional charge.
Richter takes the reins for the more intermezzo-like keyboard pieces, and while he makes a couple of minor mistakes on the lyrical ‘Andras’, and plumps for a rather ‘plastic’ sounding harpsichord setting on the digital keyboard with which to render the Bach Fantasia-like ‘Jan’s Notebook’, his celeste and skittering beats reading of ‘Untitled (Figures)’ is exemplary, providing a dream-like frame for Eva Thoraninsdottir’s soaring, ethereal violin. Elsewhere, the pre- recorded electronic passages, which work so seamlessly on the album, feel mildly incongruous. A man pressing play on his laptop never did provide much of a live spectacle, and it seems almost profligate to do so when one of the nation’s premier orchestras is sitting close by, twiddling its collective thumbs.
Such caveats seem not to bother the packed auditorium, who salute the concert’s conclusion with a five-minute standing ovation and, after the customary approbation-accepting bowing and stage exiting and returning, Richter and the orchestra deliver an achingly delicate take on the melancholy nocturne ‘Embers’; at its close, several thousand souls walk off into the cinematic Friday night rain with a suitably evocative soundtrack playing in their heads.