Straight after the Baltic Sea Philharmonic’s ‘Divine Geometry’ tour of Italy and Germany in September 2019, 76 musicians from the orchestra went into the Tallinn studios of Estonian Public Broadcasting to record a series of works by the German-born British composer Max Richter. For five days, from 23 to 27 September, the orchestra and Kristjan Järvi worked together with Richter and his sound engineers. The first results from these sessions can be heard on the new album EXILES, released by Deutsche Grammophon on 6 August 2021. The main work on the album is ‘Exiles’ which Richter wrote in response to the Syrian refugee crisis, and which was premiered as the score for a dance work by Nederlands Dans Theater in 2017.
The recording sessions in Tallinn marked the first formal collaboration between Richter and the Baltic Sea Philharmonic, although the orchestra had already been performing some of his compositions on its tours, including Dona Nobis Pacem 2 on the summer 2019 ‘Midnight Sun’ tour. Kristjan Järvi had collaborated with the composer on various projects, most intensively when Richter was artist in residence for the MDR Symphony Orchestra’s 2016/17 season, during Järvi’s time as the orchestra’s chief conductor. It was Järvi who persuaded Richter to record with the Baltic Sea Philharmonic and recommended the studios in Tallinn. And so it was that the project went ahead in Järvi’s home city, beside the Baltic Sea, and very much on the orchestra’s home turf.
Musicians’ session highlights
Having performed music by Philip Glass and Steve Reich on the ‘Divine Geometries’ tour, the Baltic Sea Philharmonic musicians arrived well prepared for Richter’s post-minimalist sound world. But recording in the presence of a composer is a quite different experience to performing for a live audience. Being part of a continuous interaction between composer, conductor, musicians and recording engineers was a fascinating and exciting experience for the players, some of whom also had the chance to sit in the recording studio to see and learn from Richter’s and his engineers’ approach to recording.
Pianist Gabriele Bekeryte from Lithuania says: ‘I felt very happy to be communicating and working together with Max Richter. It is always very inspiring to be working with a composer because that way I have a better knowledge and feeling about how their music is supposed to sound and what the ideas behind the pieces are.’
Percussionist Marnisch Ebner from Germany is another musician who got a behind-the-scenes insight into the recording process. ‘For me, it was an amazing week, because on the one hand I was recording great music and on the other hand I was allowed to sit in the recording studio,’ he says. ‘I was able to follow two sides of the recording process, and I’d never really had this chance before. Watching Max Richter and his team in the recording studio working, communicating with each other and then listening to the recording of the strings was a great experience.’ Ebner’s favourite memory of the sessions was when he was alone in the main studio, playing bass drum and some other percussion instruments. ‘Max Richter and his team and Kristjan were in the recording studio,’ he says. ‘Richter gave me his instructions over the headphones with the click track, and I wasn’t to play notes, but record special sounds and beats. That was awesome!’
The concertmaster for the recordings was Estonian violinist Marta Mutso. ‘The whole experience was unique and fun,’ she says. ‘The way the composer worked with us was very supportive and constructive, and this resonated well with the nature of the orchestra and the pieces we recorded.’ Mutso’s favourite part of the session was recording On the Nature of Daylight, a piece that movie fans may be familiar with as the music from the opening and closing titles of the 2016 sci-fi drama Arrival. She says: ‘Playing that piece felt like the whole orchestra melted into one and was being lifted up to the sky.’
Getting into the Max Richter ‘zone’
Kristjan Järvi has instilled an openness and fearlessness in the Baltic Sea Philharmonic musicians, and as part of their continual professional development, has encouraged and developed their natural abilities as musical storytellers on stage. For Järvi, Richter’s emotionally direct music was therefore both a great fit and an inspiring challenge for the players. Speaking during the recording session, Järvi said: ‘This music is so personal, and if it’s not played with personal dedication and commitment, then it doesn’t work. On an emotional level that can be scary for players, because it’s scary to go out on stage and commit yourself. You’re showing the audience exactly who you are. But that’s why I love doing these pieces with this orchestra.’
Interviewed at the same time alongside Järvi, Richter agreed that his music calls for players to absolutely commit and tell the story. ‘Often as musicians, it’s tempting to hide behind the notes,’ he said. ‘If there are a lot of notes, there are a lot of hiding places. But in this music, there are few notes, it’s very exposed, and there is nowhere to hide. I think that’s why it has this emotional effect, because it’s very challenging for the players. And I think the listeners can feel that.’
Richter also talked about the appeal of exploring his compositions afresh, explaining that, ‘One of the most satisfying things about musical language is that you have all these different entry points into a piece, depending on the individual listeners, the individual players’ own musical culture, their own way of listening, their own history with music.’ Working with the young professionals of the Baltic Sea Philharmonic, he said, offered an inspiring new connection between the music and those performing it: ‘There’s a kind of emotional narrative with these pieces. And I think, for the most part, the younger we are the more access we have to our fundamental emotional stories. So it’s brilliant to have that sort of connection between these young players and this music.’
Moreover, for Richter the socio-political nature of the album’s main work, Exiles, is reflected in the Baltic Sea Philharmonic’s mission to break down barriers and bring communities and nations together. ‘They are engaged with music and society,’ he said of the orchestra, ‘and are connecting people who live around the Baltic Sea. This orchestra has an explicit social dimension, which really struck me as important.’
Return visit to Tallinn
The Baltic Sea Philharmonic recording session wasn’t Max Richter’s first time in Tallinn. Some 20 years previously, he played a concert in the city with the six-piano group Piano Circus, performing Steve Reich’s Six Pianos and other contemporary works. Interviewed on Estonian TV channel ETV2’s Plekktrumm programme at the time of the September 2019 recording session, Richter said that his first visit to Estonia was particularly memorable: ‘The trip made a big impression on me, because it was winter and after our concert in Tallinn, we drove through the snow to Tartu, to play a concert there the next day. It was a quite magical journey.’
During the recording sessions with the Baltic Sea Philharmonic, Richter took the opportunity to visit, together with Järvi, the Arvo Pärt Centre in Laulasmaa, 35km west of the Estonian capital. There they met the renowned Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, whose music had been influential on Richter’s own compositional journey. ‘The beginnings of his popularity in the West coincided with my musical education,’ said Richter in his Plekktrumm interview. ‘I got to know his music while I was at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and many of his collaborators, like the Hilliard Ensemble, were British-based, so there were lots of concerts of his music happening in the UK. Experiencing his music, and the music of American minimalists such as Reich and Glass, made me begin to question why I was doing “complicated” music, and realise that there was another musical universe out there. There was a certain snobbery around his music, with people dismissing it as simple, but of course it isn’t simple or simplistic; it’s very sophisticated structural thinking, architectural thinking. It’s because of his tremendous musical intelligence that he can create something that appears simple but nonetheless has a kind of rigour. And we can feel that. We experience the geometry, even if we don’t immediately understand it.’
Listen to the album EXILES here