April 2001 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Founder Len Mullenger

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VIRGIN RECORDS 7243-8-50712-2-5 [55:01]
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Morricone's 'Theme de Vatel' sets itself among his loveliest works; that it rose from the same composer/director collaboration that gave us "The Mission" comes expectedly, without surprise. A choral tune as divinely melodious as the 'Falls', in its own distinct way, provides a memorable soundtrack introduction. I single this cue out because the remainder never quite touches this initial sum. Though the succeeding tracks often come close (in their own distinct way), and we acknowledge Ennio Morricone's habit of jumbling his music for album release, the objective here appears to come before the exposition.

Scored for baroque instrumentation and written as a cross-over of baroque to modern -- which is to say the composer makes his indelible imprint -- "Vatel" serves as musical atmosphere to "the epic true story of an exceptional steward named Vatel, who -- because of his talent and great success -- exists between two worlds: in a purgatory between peasantry and royalty." The composer's use of a period ensemble (the harpsichord is a fascinating instrument, yes?) and flowery styles of ouvertures & symphonies & aires turns read hyperbole into a heard reality. Selections from the era by Rameau, Colonna, and Handel that include two pieces arranged by Morricone lend credibility, but since the score already has more than the authority it needs the added tracks are a drag. The inclusion of Handel's The Royal Fireworks sure seems superfluous.

Orchestra Amit from the Accademia Musicale Italiana does not help dispel the gross generalizations about film scores recorded in Rome; there is a shallow, rectilinear sound nearly every step of the way. The solo instrumentalists credited in the sleeve notes give more dependable performances. The Cammerton Vocal Ensemble and Musicanova Choir also fare better, though tenor Kevin Greenlaw and mezzo soprano Gemma Coma-Alabert expel muffled, snooty noises in their solos, as though improving articulation might bring them misfortune whereas singing like they do clearly ought to.

The album played more smoothly when I skipped the so-called additional music. (For the sake of fairness, I also heard the album without Morricone's score; it is a short alternative.) The recording quality has a pronounced digital edge, with compression artifacts and a paucity of dynamic range that may account for some of the performance problems outlined above.

The whole of "Vatel" does not keep pace with the precedents its composer established and continues to create. Although rich and recommendable, its opulence makes it top-heavy. But that splendor remains in mind even as it topples.

Jeffrey Wheeler

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