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December 2005 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Managing Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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EDITOR'S CHOICE December 2005

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The Beautiful Country  
Music composed and produced by Zbigniew Preisner
Conducted by Michal Nalecz Nieziolowski
Performed by Orkiestra Radiowa
Soloists: Leszek Mozdzer (piano), John Paricelli (guitar), Bernard Maseli (vibraphone, kalimba), Michael Poltorak (violin), Zohar Fresco (hand drums), Jerry Glowczewski (alto saxophone), Jacek Ostaszewski (flute), Mariusz Bogdanowicz (electric bass), Marta Maslanka (dulcimer), Adam Klocek (cello).
  Available on Mellowdrama (MEL102)
Running Time: 50:09
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  • The Beautiful Country marks composer Zbigniew Preisner’s second collaboration with director Hans Petter Moland, following their successful partnership on Aberdeen. Several of Preisner’s regular musical team are present here, including John Parricelli on guitar, Leszek Mozdzer on piano and Hammond organ and Jerzy Glowczewski on alto sax, who all fulfilled the same roles on Aberdeen. And while the current score echoes something of the delicately introspective sensibility of the previous collaboration, including a recurring main theme which has distinct similarities of approach, this new work is unlike its predecessor, far from the influence of Norwegian saxophonist Jan Gabarek. Here, while Preisner continues to blend his typically elegiac orchestral writing with elegant solo melodies and electronics a light jazz and Asian feel lends a somewhat different tone.

    The film tells the story of a refugee’s escape from impoverishment and servitude in Vietnam to find his long lost American father. It is reportedly a harrowing tale of the price immigrants must pay for freedom, and an adventure which ranges from rural Vietnam to a Malaysian detention camp to the USA. The score meanwhile ventures from thoughtful string writing to sequences of refined ambient calm, where piano and guitar blend with processed electronic sound to mesmeric effect.

    Key to the album is a main theme which sets a melody (clearly evoking Aberdeen) played on kalimba or thumb piano, against a tapestry of tasteful Asian percussion, sometimes even with a shadow of rock Hammond organ artfully processed into the mix. Phased, or otherwise treated, the organ sound seems almost at odds with the other instruments, yet is treated as a fresh texture, not something from the far less sophisticated techniques of rock ‘n’ roll.

    Elsewhere in the score percussion is used with precision and delicacy, simple piano lines floating through the score like a ghost. And notably several cues, beginning with ‘The Streets of New York’ counterpoint the main theme with what seems almost a reference to Alex North’s love theme from Spartacus (1960), particular the opening phrases as voiced here by solo violin. In-fact there is a jazz-like approach which summons to mind violinist Regina Carter’s version of North’s theme on her album Motor City Moments (2000).

    Other notable touches include beguiling woodwind – ‘Rain’, ‘Memories of My Mother’ – with echoes of the composer’s score for La Double Vie de la Veronique (1991), and some highly evocative, yet very simple, bass playing.

    The Beautiful Country is a beautiful score where melody and atmosphere combine perfectly. Filled with typically dream-like Priesner melancholy and enchantment, The Beautiful Country is Preisner’s most satisfying album release since the non-film score disc, Requiem for My Friend. Those who seek blockbusting action adventure, or a return to the Golden Age of Hollywood, will find nothing of interest here. Those familiar with the composer, or perhaps enamoured of the romantic beauty of Ennio Morricone’s most lyrical scores, will find the current disc offers many subtle pleasures and much to enjoy. The recorded sound is spellbindingly exquisite.

    Gary Dalkin

    4.5

    Michael McLennan adds:-

    Once the composer-of-choice for the legendary Krystof Kieslowski, Zbigniew Preisner (who scored Kieslowski’s Trois Coleur trilogy, the Dekalog, and La Double Vie de Veronique) has not, unlike his fellow countryman Jan Kaczmarek, attempted to push into mainstream fold of film composers. And who could blame him? How could you go from scoring a masterpiece by Kieslowski – a man so attentive to the role of sound in film that books could be written about his use of it - to silly revenge dramas like John Singleton’s Four Brothers or Oscar bait like Lasse Hallstrom’s An Unfinished Life?

    Fortunately Preisner has found a consistent stream of employment in international arthouse cinema and borderline mainstream projects, amassing an impressive list of credits for films directed by: Louis Malle (Damage), Agnieska Holland (The Secret Garden), Jean Becker (Elisa, Effroyable Jardins), Charles Sturridge (Fairy Tale: A True Story), Hector Babenco (Corazon Illuminado), Wong Kar Wai (2046 – music from the Dekalog was tracked-in), Eric Styles (Dreaming of Joseph Lees), Deborah Warner (The Last September) and Thomas Vinterberg (the much derided Claire Danes-Joaquin Phoenix starrer It’s All About Love).

    In 2000, Preisner brought his unique sound to Aberdeen, a Stellan Skarsgard / Lena Headey / Charlotte Rampling starrer directed by Norwegian Hans Petter Moland. It was a road movie – journeying with an estranged father-daughter pair from Norway to Scotland. Mellowdrama Records sophomore release is for Moland and Preisner’s most recent collaboration – The Beautiful Country. Like Aberdeen, it is a road movie - following a young Vietnamese man (Damian Nguyen) on his journey from Vietnam to ‘the beautiful country’ (the United States) where his absentee father (Nick Nolte) resides.

    It’s hard to imagine any other composer devising a score half as distinctive as the one Preisner has produced here. Take his gorgeous main theme – presented in ‘The Beautiful Country’ – it seems to be a short theme at first, stopping after three descending notes. But it returns with another phrase, before fading away again. And another. It seems like it has vanished altogether before the gorgeous bridging phrase brings the long-lined melody to its resolution. It’s hard to compare the theme to previous Preisner tunes – it is both wholly-like and completely unlike anything he’s done before.

    The unique combination of timbres consistently lifts this score. A soft guitar rhythm and cello solo lead into ‘A Dream of Freedom’, an alto saxophone harmonising with the cello before regular Kaczmarek-collaborator Leszek Mozdzer’s icy piano appears over a vibraphone, piano and vibraphone playing textural material until the end of the cue. ‘Saigon’ is an involving journey piece for dulcimer, guitar, hand percussion, kalimba (Kenyan thumb piano), the alto saxophone and vibraphone entering in duet before the cue’s end. ‘The Promised Land’ follows in much the same vein, with stronger emphasis on piano (here infused with an unmistakably jazzy feel).

    Idiomatic flexibility is another feature of the music. Piano motifs with a gospel feel sit alongside bluegrass acoustic guitar plucking and a lilting violin theme in ‘Streets of New York’, three idioms leading into a piano statement of the main theme with delicate counterpoint from the rest of the ensemble.

    Preisner navigates well between his larger and smaller ensembles throughout. The full string orchestra returns with another hesitant long-lined theme in ‘Ship of Hope’, the fade away sections of the theme used by Preisner for kalimba and piano harmonisation. Half way through the cue, another urgent string theme appears – this score is not short on melodic invention – with piano arpeggiations contrasting the large string sound. Similarly, ‘Letter to My Mother’ moves effortlessly from an intimate ethnic flute and vibraphone duet to a full string performance of the opening measures of his main theme. The placing of ‘Time Passing’, a journey for Mozdzer’s piano through duets with other ensemble performers, before the final orchestral statement of the main theme also works a treat.

    While it does feel a little bit long, there is very little repetition between tracks without some variation in orchestration. The production of the music is stunning, with elegant mixing of the ensemble by Rafal Paczkowski meaning even textural cues like ‘Strange Look’ leave an impression. All soloists acquit themselves finely, the score benefiting from Preisner’s emphasis on instruments not normally pushed to the foreground in film scores (the dulcimer, vibraphone, hand drums, alto saxophone).

    It is quite simply one of the finest albums of film music to be released this year, certainly one of the best of Preisner’s illustrious career. In part this is a result of tone – though the story is dark in many of its episodes, Preisner seems to have scored the persevering human spirit at the centre of it, and it makes for an uplifting experience. Sadly, like Ennio Morricone’s Fateless, the non-mainstream origins of the film mean it’s hard to imagine this score receiving much attention from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences next year.

    Michael McLennan

    5

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