There's a fine balance when it comes to combining classical textures with contemporary composition; on the one hand you're left with copious strings padding out a lack of ideas, whilst on the other there's a tendency to become esoteric in a fashion that alienates all but a hardcore of listeners. Max Richter is neither of the above... Classically trained and with a proven track record that numbers production work for Vashti Bunyan alongside his own 'The Blue Notebooks' release, Richter makes the kind of cinematic music that is difficult to describe without resorting to hyperbolic clichés... But we'll give it a go.
Possibly more subtle than his previous work, 'Songs From Before' is nonetheless a grand sonic gesture - with Richter combining cello, piano, violin, and viola around a central production style that is discreet without becoming muted. Melancholic and uplifting, 'Songs From Before' opens with 'Song'; a stunning sweep of piquant strings and muffled soundscapes that recall Cage, Arvo Part and Glass, whilst retaining a distinct Richter flavour. Describing himself as "post-classical", Richter's music has a submerged quality - as if you're hearing something that's just out of reach and thereby coaxing the ear deeper and deeper until you're totally absorbed by the music. Just as 'The Blue Notebooks' featured Tilda Swinton reading excerpts from Kafka, so 'Songs From Before' employs the same convention - here drafting in Robert Wyatt to pensively narrate passages from Haruki Murakami to create a reflective focal point that bestows the music with even greater gravitas.
Opening 'Flowers For Yulia' with a narrative thread that discusses city at dawn, the mealy crackle of vinyl slowly melts away into some glorious strings that are both eulogistic and contained, suggesting the poignant atmosphere of day break. From here, the sleight piano of 'Fragment' is the perfect juxtaposition to the proceeding grand gesture, 'Harmonium' twinkles into view with a iridescence that is genuinely beautiful, whilst 'Autumn Music 2' exploits the murky quality of the 16 track 2 inch analogue tape he recorded on through epic strings and a snow fall of background noise.
Epic yet personal, 'Songs From Before' is a joy that firmly cements Max Richter at the forefront of contemporary composition.