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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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Oliver Twist  
Music composed by Rachel Portman
  Available on Sony Classical (SK 96506)
Running Time: 53:26
Crotchet   Amazon UK   Amazon US

Roman Polanski’s current version of Oliver Twist is at least the 20th adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel made either for the large or small screen. Scores have been composed to depict the story by everyone from Arnold Bax (for David Lean’s classic 1948 version) to Nick Bicât (1982 TV version) to Dudley Simpson (1985 TV series). Bax dense and complex score set the standard for all others to meet, and Rachel Portman’s approach is as different as could be. And let us not forget she has already recently ventured into the world of Charles Dickens for the 2002 adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby, while The Human Stain and The Manchurian Candidate remake have found her exploring more malevolent territories. 

The opening, ‘Streets of London’ seemingly finds the composer on auto-pilot, delivering a sprightly introduction not a world away from her marvellous Oscar-winning score for Emma (1996). As befits the tale though matters soon take a darker turn, with a typically string dominated Portman sound adopting significantly more menacing colours than we have come to expect from the talent behind the likes of The Legend of Bagger Vance and Chocolat.

The problem is, while taken in isolation a cue such as ‘The Murder’ stands out as a tense and gripping set-piece of pulsating string motifs, taken as a whole the score proves to be an uninspiring and repetitive listen on disc, with much of the playing time given to low-key string suspense underscore surrendering to more explosive confrontational passages, all largely bereft of anything approaching a memorable melody. There is a sinuous Herrmann-esque sensibility to the powerful ‘The Death of Bill Sykes’, and a tender dignity to ‘Newgate Prison’ (before it turns into a dance once again all too evocative of Emma), but otherwise there’s little here to warrant an entire, almost hour long album. A suite on a future anthology from the composer would serve this score much better.

One for Portman completists and big fans of this particular version of Oliver Twist only. Anyone else who doesn’t already have it would be better off buying a copy of Emma.

Gary Dalkin


Demetris Christodoulides adds:-

Another screen adaptation of a famous Charles Dickens' classic novel like OLIVER TWIST is nothing new or exciting. What was strange about this project though, was that the specific project was helmed by controversial director Roman Polanski along with the surprise assignment of the scoring duties toRachel Portman, moving away from Polanski’s usual composing partners, Vangelis, Ennio Morricone, Philippe Sarde and particularly Wojciech Kilar.

Rachel Portman has indeed created a charming and interesting orchestral score to accompany the tale but without making any leaps away from her usual style of composing. In fact, I would say that while this score makes up for a satisfying listening experience on album, I still can’t think of anything more inappropriate to accompany the Oliver Twist tale, because this score has no individual character or originality. It could easily be the musical veil for most of the other Portman scores from the last decade, without anyone taking notice.

The usual classical orchestration which relies on piano, vivid strings, cheery, playful woodwinds and a little dose of brass and percussion instantly states its presence in this score as well, right from the very first.. ‘Streets of London’ opens directly on an easy and stable G major, with the main theme. Based on a 9-note snug, staccato motif, it is first performed on trumpet and accompanied by full orchestra. Instrument solos move through violins and trombones and the piece makes some additional passes through minor scales, shifting up the atmosphere a little bit. The base rhythm for this cue is quite intelligent and notable however. While the metre is 4/4, it has a 1+2+1 structure, moving the native strong points of the 4/4 metre naturally to other points, and in so doing creates a subtle 3/4 waltz-like feeling that cleverly adds a distinct dance character to the piece. Along with that, Rachel Portman has also inserted constantly repeated triplets of eighths that make the arrangement of the cue even denser. The same compositional style continues throughout the whole album and specifically on the first half of the score. Little is changed every time though, with some alternations found primarily in the orchestration, with the main theme passing through clarinets, bassoons, low strings and piano as well, always staying true to the basic form of her particular style of composition, i.e. ‘variations on a theme’ as it is known in the world of music.

In ‘Oliver learns the hard way’, things differ, the music moving towards the dark side . At half the duration of the piece, and while it had opened in a somewhat careless and typical manner, a fast, rhythmic, tense and rousing string ostinato is introduced. Built in minor chords, some light dissonance is also utilized with this cue which basically serves as a foreboding of what follows in the 2nd half of the score.

This is where things get more interesting, at the start of the dark side of the score, laid here on the official CD in chronological order and therefore, following the story-line. ‘Watching Mr.Brownlow’s house’ marks the beginning of this darker facet, where the

Bill Sykes’ theme is introduced. It is built on a four-note motif mainly substantiated on bass woodwind (clarinet) and brass. Despite being a simple melody, it possesses a particularly evil character and accurately enlivens the villain. The ‘Bill Sykes’ theme prevails through this  part of the score (which covers the whole 2nd half of it) with dense, dark and fast music along with some creepy and agony-building material. Calmer passages with distinct piano lines vividly echo James Newton Howard’s compositional style. Another important element that dominates this section of the score are the intense string ostinatos (either simple or in a more complex, passacaglia form in times) and the dissonant brass chords that altogether add a particularly malevolent character to the overall work.

Things revert to the initial mood for a last, single time in the concluding ‘Newgate Prison’. The cue begins with the subordinate secondary theme for Oliver and moves into a new, bright and heartbreakingly uplifting theme which immediately adds light and hope to the overall mood. In the concluding part we find a glorious and faster restatement of the main theme, complete with strong string lines, cathartically providing the perfect note for the uplifting ending.

Oliver Twist is fundamentally pleasant, light, elegant, classy and uplifting. However, while it is based on constant repetitions of the main theme, along with a couple of escorting, secondary ones, it quickly gets tedious and tiring. Except from the hard, darker side of the score, it generally lacks the vigour and originality that would set it apart the largest part of her overall work and differentiate it from other similar-sounding, classical-oriented orchestral works of our times. Rachel Portman fans will love it but the rest should approach with extreme caution.

Demetris Christodoulides


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