Max Richter/Jóhann Jóhannsson, Union Chapel, London, 29/06/2008


Posted on Jul 1st 2008 12:42 am

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Feature: Max Richter/Jóhann Jóhannsson, Union Chapel, London, 29/06/2008

Max Richter gave a rare live performance at the Union Chapel in London’s Islington, ahead of the release of his latest project, 24 Postcards In Full Colour, on Fat-Cat in July, and, opening the evening for him was Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson.

Jóhannsson took the stage accompanied with a string quartet and one additional personnel on electronics. With the string quartet positioned centre stage, Jóhannsson found himself stuck in the background between a baby grand piano and his keyboards. Jóhannsson has, since the release of his debut album, Englabörn, in 2002 on Touch and reissued last year on 4AD, established himself as one of the best contemporary classical composers around and has, beside his own records, composed music for films and plays and has also been involved with a handful of side projects. For this London performance, Jóhannsson focused exclusively on his solo work, presenting tracks taken essentially from Englabörn and IBM 1401, A User’s Manual, with a couple of more rhythmic pieces sourced from Dis.

Most of the compositions interpreted during the performance relied on Jóhannsson’s melancholic piano melodies, supported by the string quartet, but often, electronic textures were noticed developing in the background. Ten minutes in the performance, as the dying notes of the previous piece still peppered the air, a low-end hum began to rise, progressively developing into an overwhelming drone as the string quartet were ineluctably swallowed by the dark sonic mass. While nothing of such a scale was to be repeated, it cast a resolutely modern shadow over Jóhannsson’s work and his approach to both melodic aspects and noise-based formations.

Jóhannsson’s rendition of some of the most beautiful moments of Englabörn, including the haunting Odi Et Amo and Joi Et Karen, with which the ensemble opened, and some sequences from IBM and Dris offered a delicate balance of tones against the more experimental moments, building on the melodic theme of each piece, even when at its more minimal, to define the emotional nature of Jóhannsson’s music.

Following a short interval, a rather cheerful-looking Max Richter walked on stage with a string quintet in tow. Very much like on Richter’s records, the performance alternated between beautiful piano and string pieces and textural moments, at times augmented with texts. Richter and his ensemble presented a selection of tracks lifted primarily from his two Fat-Cat albums, the stunning The Blue Notebooks and Songs From Before. The set kicked off with the voice of Robert Wyatt reading a poem from Japanese author Haruki Murakami as heard on Songs From Before, and from that moment, Richter, busying himself between piano, laptop and keyboard, shaped the emotional landscape of the evening as darkness progressively enveloped the audience as the last rays of sunshine sunk away through the windows of the Union Chapel.

The fragility of the music was constantly highlighted with the intrusion of external sounds, whether it was the siren of an emergency vehicle zooming past outside or a door closing too noisily in the back of the church, yet, these were, for most part, mere grain in the soundtrack that was being played. Warm and elegant volutes of stings and piano, alternating at the forefront, and cinematic amalgamations of noises and sounds placed as moody interludes, contributed to the performance being at once truly enthralling and dreamy, with the voices of Wyatt or of British actress Tilda Swinton only adding to the gentle otherworldlyness of the night, emanating from nowhere in particular. The recurring guitar loop of Shadow Journal set against delicate string work and deep rhythmic thuds, the warm organ waves of Organum, the autumnal shades of Song or the light glow of Arboretum developed in front of the audience out of nothing, delicately shaped by a formation in apparent symbiosis.

Both Jóhann Jóhannsson and Max Richter rewarded the audience for preferring an evening of contemporary classical music to the finale of Euro 2008 with beautiful performances of some of their respective back catalogue and each of their performance resonated through the beautiful venue, served as they deserved to be.

Max Richter | Jóhann Jóhannsson | Fat-Cat Records | 4AD | Touch

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