June 2006 Film Music Editorial

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

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The Later Morricone (Part 1/2)

It’s time you made that pot of coffee you’ve been thinking about.

This is something of a strange editor’s choice – a collection of six discs that must be bought separately. In a given month though, any one of these could have been an Editor’s Choice. It seems we feature so many compilations of Ennio Morricone’s work in our reviews – a major compilation in our last update, a minor compilation and a concert DVD in this one – that we never really get a chance to hear the latest from Morricone. At seventy-eight, the Maestro is as active as ever, writing music in a voice so strong not even Hollywood could kill it. Four scores a year is about his minimum annual effort in the last ten years, and since very few of them (in the last five years especially) are English-language film, you could say a buyer’s guide is essential.

This is barely a beginning – a survey of four scores from 2005 (a watershed year), and two scores from 2002-2003 – but hopefully it’s useful. We weren’t send these titles for review, but the Maestro’s work is a passion of mine, so I thought I’d try and put a collection of reviews online while most of these are still in print and/or reasonably price. Potential vendors are indicated in each review, only the first (and best) of these being available from amazon.com. If you are interested in these titles, look into getting them sooner rather than later.

The surprising thing of all of these scores is that you never sense Morricone coasting on his previous success. All of them are unquestionably his work, but because the composer has nearly five hundred scores’ experience in writing music for film, his idea base in incredibly broad, and even works of similar subject matter attract vastly different scores. In brief, Fateless is the highlight score of this bunch – the kind of score with a beauty and lyricism that is almost religious, intensely emotional. Cefalonia is more optimistic – resting on beautiful themes for orchestra and choir, the main theme reminiscent of some the composer’s 1970s ballads. Il Cuore nel Pozzo, for orchestra with harmonica soloist, is a richly nostalgic collection of themes that evoke childhood experiences of beauty and horror. Karol is another highlight - a stern but moving portrait of a man that merged the divine and the humane. Ripley’s Game is the mischievous score of the bunch – featuring saxophone, harpsichord and flicorno soloists – a more intellectual than emotional score. And La Luz Prodigiosa is different again, focused on a reduced ensemble of soloists – piano, string quartet, bassoon and vocalist. All of them are highly recommended for reasons I elaborate on below.

  • [Review]: Fateless
  • [Review]: Cefalonia
  • [Review]: Il Cuore nel Pozzo
  • [Review]: Karol un uomo diventato Papa
  • [Review]: Ripley’s Game
  • [Review]: La Luz Prodigiosa
  • The Later Morricone: Go to Conclusion

    Fateless (aka Sorstalansag, 2005)  
    Music composed, orchestrated, and conducted by Ennio Morricone
    Performed by Hungarian Radio Orchestra and Choir with Lisa Gerrard (vocals), Ulrich Herkenhoff (pan flute), Agnes Szakaly (dulcimer) and Ludovico Fulci (synthesizers)
      Available on EMI Music (EMI 7243 860331 2 3)
    Running Time: 42:30
    Amazon US

    As a film, Fateless (2005) was highly anticipated for three reasons. Firstly, it was based on a Nobel Prize winning novel by Imre Kertesz, who scripted the adaptation of the story of a Hungarian boy who endures the horrors of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Secondly, the film is directed by Lajos Koltai, a marvellous Hungarian cinematographer (many of the films of Giuseppe Tornatore and Istvan Szabo), and the prospect of such wonderful visualist translating a work so literary was tantalising. And thirdly, it was to be scored by Ennio Morricone, who announced early on that he would be writing for Lisa Gerrard’s distinctive voice. That last announcement was not so welcomed by some Morricone fans, some prognosticators anticipating New Age aesthetics might corrupt even the Maestro’s indomitable sound.

    I’ve still to see the film, which was not the foreign language Oscar certainty its investors must have hoped. But I have heard the score, and it’s probably one of the strongest works of Morricone’s career. (Alas, I only speak with knowledge of about seventy of the composer’s works, not all five hundred.) It begins with ‘Fateless’, a melody of folk-simplicity in the spirit of Days of Heaven, Ulrich Herkenhoff’s pan flute lending a sense of innocence for the film’s childlike protagonist. That opening track dextrously weaves it into both major and minor key settings without a sense of altered mood. Its simple melodic hook, five notes, is readily summoned by the composer for a variety of moods – the melancholy minor key pan flute rendition over dulcimer and tremolo strings in ‘The Beginning of the Tragedy’; the serene oboe of ‘At the Table’ over harp and stern string accompaniment; and the flute-clarinet duet of the major key form of the melody in the second half of the same cue.

    As for those who shuddered at the thought of Lisa Gerrard standing in for Morricone’s more classically voiced muse – Ella Dell’Orso – they needn’t have worried. This isn’t the improvisations-in-search-of-ideas composition that the vocalist is often accused of pursuing (why does all film music have to be on-the-page anyway?), but a variation on Morricone’s familiar use of the female soprano. It’s amazing just how much difference another voice can make, Gerrard’s rich, almost classical rendition of one of Morricone’s themes – ‘A Voice from the Inside’ – a hymnal experience amidst pipe organ and swirling strings. That theme is the dominant idea of the score, so it’s just as well that it’s one of the composer’s greatest themes. It’s hard to imagine Ella Dell’Orso working so well here, Gerrard’s vocalisations possessing a more defined spectrum of sorrow and elation that works a treat dramatically – and Morricone’s orchestrations shaped to her range. In ‘Song’, Gerrard’s beautiful wordless vocals are accompanied by the Hungarian Radio Choir, the orchestra creeping in towards the end. ‘About Solitude’ and ‘About Solitude II’ develop this theme solely for orchestra with oboe lead, equally beautiful.

    There are other ideas coming between the two main themes. The stern face of war presents itself in ‘The Field’, with stabbing string chords, dulcimer, percussion and brass support; violins and dulcimer emerging from the horror to render the epic texture intimate. These ideas return in ‘Voiceless’ and ‘Psychological Destruction’, the latter opening with rolls of snare drums and timpani before a reprise of the ‘Field’ theme with emphasis on tremolo strings, dulcimer and a subdued horn reading of the ‘Fateless’ theme in counterpoint.

    There are also some lighter moments unrelated to the main themes – the delicate dulcimer theme that opens ‘Home Again’, carried by piano, oboe and flute over the yearning strings the Maestro is so known for. There’s also an allegro passage in ‘To Return and To Remember’, a dextrous piece for dulcimer well-performed by Agnes Szakaly.

    But the album highlight – nay, one of the highlights of Morricone’s career – is ‘Return to Life’, the second cue. Organ opens the cue, soft minor chords accompanied by an oboe melody. Strings wash in as the melody from ‘Voice from the Inside’ comes to the fore, the whole orchestra joining in an epiphanic reading of the material. But it’s not over – choir counterpoint woodwinds in a reading of the ‘Fateless’ theme – and Gerrard’s wordless vocals from ‘A Song’ enter over gorgeous string and choral harmonies. A minor key pan flute reading of the ‘Fateless’ theme closes the piece.

    It’s unquestionably the Maestro’s best since Nostromo, and possibly The Mission (1986), Once Upon a Time in America (1984) and Marco Polo (1982) before that. It’s just about that good. Fortunately, it’s also the easiest of his recent releases to find, distributed by EMI and available from Amazon. The spare liner notes are thankfully in English, a rare luxury for language-constrained collectors of the composer’s works. But even if they weren’t, this is a work with the religious aura of The Mission, What Dreams May Come. If the hairs haven’t stood on your neck in a while, it’s time you gave them a chance. An essential work. I can’t wait to see the film.

    Rating: 5

    Cefalonia (2005)  
    Music composed, orchestrated, and conducted by Ennio Morricone
    Performed by Roma Sinfonietta with Lirico Sinfonico Roma
      Available on Rai Trade (FRT-408)
    Running Time: 55:24

    The cover of RAI Trade’s release of the soundtrack to the miniseries Cefalonia (2005) features glamorous portraits of its Italian stars carefully made-up to appear credibly beaten in wartime fashion. Below them, a still from the film of four ragged looking soldiers – coats unbuttoned, collars wrinkled, faces unshaved, posture unsoldierlike – as they stand before a firing squad of fascist soldiers. Grit, the horrors of war, rebellion against oppression (by Greek inhabitants against their Captain Corelli-like fascist oppressors), and Italian soldiers finding their place in an occupied country on learning that they have lost a war are impressions I get from these images. The expectation is that Ennio Morricone’s score for this 2005 miniseries will be suitably dour.

    Which makes it surprising that this is probably the most exhuberant among the scores reviewed here. If you’d told me the main theme, ‘Dammi La Mano’, was written for the induction mass of the newly-appointed Pope Benedict XVI, I’d have believed you. An Italian folk anthem with solo passages for organ, flute, oboe, stately rhythm, and, of course, the unison voices of Lirico Sinfonico Roma – it’s easy to imagine people lining up for the Eucharist, partaking of it, and respectfully genuflecting in their seats over the theme’s seven minute development. It’s kind of halfway between Morricone’s Jubilee for the Roman Catholic Church – ‘Cantico del Giubileo’ – and the Joan Baez ballad ‘Here’s to You’ from Sacco and Vanzeti. With foundations so diverse it can’t help but not really sound like either, and it’s a fantastic cue to bookend the album.

    In the film itself, I suppose it’s a theme for the one good Italian soldier who will somehow resolve the differences between the Cefalonians and their former occupiers. My primitive translation of ‘Dammi La Mano’ – ‘Give me a hand’ – is of no real help here. The subtitle – ‘Testo di Maria Travia’ – is also curious, Maria Travia being the maiden name of Morricone’s wife of many years. Whatever it represents dramatically, it’s an incredibly inspiring theme – appearing for harpsichord and string orchestra in ‘Piccola Marcia’, and for Morricone’s beloved viola in ‘Marcia del Gueramento’.

    What’s especially nice about Cefalonia though is the rich amount of thematic ideas Morricone presents here between reprisals of his main theme. ‘Quella Sera’ (‘That Night’) is a lilting melody in the oboe for what is probably a love scene, the theme also appearing in ‘Ancora vivi per L’Amore’ (‘You live for love’). ‘Sulla Sponda’ is similarly lyrical, with yet another theme carried in a gentle string motion, choir and trumpet soloist both appearing throughout the piece. ‘Nelli’isola, Soli’ impresses especially – it’s bright trumpet melody adorned with that gorgeous choral writing Morricone used to such great effect in Mission to Mars (2000) and his rejected What Dreams May Come (1998) scores. ‘I Fratelli d’Italia’ (‘Brothers of Italy’) develops this melody further in the harpsichord. Consistently, the music represents the high ideals of the true story and the idyllic location.

    Despite the overall positive tone of the score, there are still some concessions to the wartime setting and abject faces of the characters seen in the sleeve notes. While beautiful in its own unassuming way, ‘Riflessivo , Meditativo’ is more ambiguous than anything that precedes it – those unsettling string harmonies Morricone writes so well balancing the simple-phrased melody for woodwind and string soloists. Unassuming is a word that could never be applied to the next cue – ‘Via Dall’Inferno’ (‘The Way from Hell’) – the composer’s In the Line of Fire action music making an unlikely appearance, with organ, energetic piano, and stabbing violins. As with so many of Morricone’s scores of late, there are not many suspense cues but one really big one – the fourteen minute ‘Composizione sulla Resistenza’ – the title (no translation needed!) indicating it’s probably a suite comprised of many cues rather than a single one. As with much of his suspense writing of late (see Ripley’s Game and Il Cuore nel Pozzo below), this is actually really listenable, if less accessible than the melodic splendor heard elsewhere in the album.

    The liner notes of Rai Trade’s release are something of a frustration even for the Italian reader, as there’s no discussion from director or composer of their ideas in English or Italian, only a basic list of cast and crew. Both peoples will have to be content with the stills, which interest me in the film, even though there’s something staged and slightly-silly about it all. Whatever language you speak, this release is an essential work for orchestra and choir for those who like their music beautiful and inspiring. The album can be purchased from Intrada, Screen Archives Entertainment and other speciality soundtrack outlets.

    Rating: 4.5

    Il Cuore nel Pozzo (aka The Hearth in the Pit, 2005)  
    Music composed, orchestrated, and conducted by Ennio Morricone
    Performed by Roma Sinfonietta with harmonica solos by Gianlucca Littera
      Available on Rai Trade (FRT-407)
    Running Time: 55:25

    Those keeping track of the subjects of these films will note that this is the third review of 2005 film set in World War II and scored by Morricone. (Though the first chronologically speaking.) Whereas Fateless looked at a Hungarian child’s experience of the Holocaust, and Cefalonia observed the Italian occupation of a Greek island, Il Cuore nel Pozzo (2005) looks at an episode relatively unfamiliar to western records of twentieth century atrocities – the ethnic cleansing of Italians from Dalmatia and Istria by Tito’s partisans towards the end of the war. The television movie was produced by the same company behind Cefalonia, RAI, and proved to be the source of much contention among the liberal press of Italy and just about everyone in Slovenia for it’s unabashed fascist perspective. The film takes the perspective of a group of Italian children fleeing the monstrous communist partisans, encountering a cowardly Jew who tries to sell them to the partisans along the way, a dog the primitive partisans kill for having a soul, and some beneficent Blackshirts. (Hard to imagine what all the fuss was about!) Those interested can learn more from the wisdom of Wikipedia.

    Perhaps music should be above controversy. (Just ask Richard Wagner’s fans.) All I can say is that those who miss out on this score for whatever reason are indeed missing out. It seems at times like this score barely scratches the surface of the amount of music in the actual show, because practically every new track presents a new and gorgeous theme in Morricone’s classic romantic style. The title track, repeated in a more positive rendition at the end, features a dreamy harmonica over echoing string harmonies – the sound of a child’s fascist innocence lost perhaps. (It’s nothing like the composer’s use of that instrument in a certain Sergio Leone film.) The second track ‘Marcia Balcania’ is a sprightly march for the partisans, with Morricone’s highly distinctive orchestrations and melodic style making it sound unlike any march partisans have made before. ‘Lei con lui’ is one of the composer’s more typical love themes – passionate and affirming. Though perhaps we’ve heard this type of cue a hundred times before from the composer, it never ceases to charm.

    One gets strong sense that this is music for child characters – there is a disarming innocence to the melodies, as in the theme carried by harmonica, oboe and flute in ‘Suona l’armonica’, or harmonica-piano opening of ‘Suona un bambino’. (The snare drums of the latter summons the bizarre image of child Blackshirts marching – you’d swear it was meant to be a parody.) Not that there isn’t also music for adults here, both passionate and brutal – ‘Un Giorno Sara’ features a to-die-for viola solo that returns to the material of ‘Lei con lui’. Also featuring strong viola is the ‘Una viola in fiore’, a darker romantic theme heavy with tragedy. On the brutal side, it all comes to a head in the lengthy ‘Orrori’, one of the most interesting cues on album, though for some listeners probably an unbearable eleven minutes of Morricone’s trademark avante-garde style.

    ‘Sperduti’ is one of the darker highlights, presenting a simple three note motif in a call-and-answer pattern between strings and woodwinds, suggesting a psychological depth that this music otherwise seems a little light on for Morricone. More bombastic is the weighty slow tempo march of ‘Abbandono delle case’. My personal favourite of the themes here is the vibrant folk dance ‘Passaggio a sud’, a slightly-rustic dance that again gives prominence to the viola. It’s one of the few themes that recurs throughout the album – ‘Balcani per fuggire’ (the first cue of that name) turns it into an epic theme for escape with prominence to the horns; while ‘Balcani per fuggire’ (the second cue of that name) presents more intimate variations for flute, clarinet, cor anglais and oboe over gentle harp rhythm.

    Given how similar some of the ideas of this story are to Fateless – children fleeing their extermination – it’s a credit to Morricone that the scores are so different, this more folklike and down-to-earth than the religious aura of the score for the Lajos Koltai film. I rate this one a little bit lower than the others discussed here as a listening experience. Partly it’s because I find the ideas here not quite as arresting as elsewhere in the Maestro’s recent titles, and it’s also partly because it makes for a less cohesive experience than Fateless or Cefalonia. Even as I make that remark I realise that I’m quibbling – the themes and their cohesion or lack of it here still embody more character than a lot of film music I’ve heard. No – those who want a gorgeous collection of themes from the Maestro with a slightly more innocent slant to them will find this a most pleasing work.

    I recently purchased it from Intrada Records, and I note that at time of writing it is also available at Footlight Records and Screen Archives Entertainment for purchase at prices reasonable for such unreasonably good music. The spare sleeve notes from Rai Trade contain a couple of black and white stills, and little more.

    Rating: 4

    Go to Part 2 of "The Later Morricone".

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