April 2006 Film Music CD Reviews

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

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Les Enfants Terribles  
Music composed by Philip Glass
Adapted from the film by Jean Cocteau by Philip Glass and Susan Marshall
Conducted by Karen Kemensek
Performed by Christine Arand (soprano – Lise), Philip Cutlip (bass-baritone – Paul), Hal Cazalet (tenor – Gerard/Narrator), Valerie Komar (mezzo-soprano – Dargelos/Agathe), Philip Glass (piano/keyboards), Nelson Padgett (piano/keyboards) and Eleanor Sandresky (piano/keyboards).
  Available on Orange Mountain Music (omm-0019)
Running Times: [Total]: 90:59
[Disc 1]: 49:08
[Disc 2]: 41:51
Amazon UK   Amazon US

See also:

  • Philip on Film (Disc 4 contains La Belle e la Bette)
  • Les Enfants Terribles is a dance opera, composed by Philip Glass for an ensemble of vocal soloists (Soprano, Mezzo-soprano, Tenor, Baritone) and dancers, all accompanied by three grand pianos (or 3 digital pianos). The work was commissioned by Steps '96, MIGROS Switzerland - Cultural Commitment, where it premiered at the Theatre Casino, Zug, Switzerland in May 1996. Dancers and singers shared the stage for the final instalment of the composer’s trilogy based on the work of Jean Cocteau. (Previous instalments include La Belle e la Bette.)

    Les Enfants Terribles is a large and complex work. Orange Mountain Music’s 2005 two CD release is well-appointed, with detailed booklet notes by Philip Glass himself and his close companion, choreographer Susan Marshall. An essential element of the notes – which discuss the difficulties in mounting the production - is the translated libretto. In works like these - strongly relying on the narrative and dramatic action – it is crucial for the listener to understand the story on which the music is based. And it is a complex story with an unconventional, demanding and eclectic score. Gérard tells the story of a brother and sister, Paul and Lise, who live in a fantasy world of their own imaginings. They are severed from the outside world by the death of their mother, after which Paul has an accident that leaves them isolated and totally dependent on each other. They pass their days in their "Room", acting out wild fantasies, which they term "playing the game." At first innocent, these games become increasingly twisted.

    Gérard, their only friend, and Lise’s fellow model, Agathe, start to visit them, serving as their private audience. With outsiders, things get even more complicated and twisted, further threatening the delicate balance that these "children" have created. Things get worse when Lise's fiancé, Michael, dies in a car crash, and fate sets the stage for tragedy. Unable to accept that her brother Paul has fallen in love with Agathe, Lise acts against to prevent the marriage. She tricks their friend Gérard into marrying Agathe, ensuring that she and Paul will never be separated. But the "magical" world the two of them had before cannot be recreated. Paul tries to poison himself, and in the tremendous confusion that follows, the truth about Lise's plot comes out. What had begun as a children's game ends tragically in death and destruction.

    It’s really amazing how much Glass was able to achieve with just three pianos and four voices, no additional orchestra or electronic aid whatsoever. The tension, complexity and the severity of this emotionally-charged music is simply outstanding. Constant musical dialogues between the four voices and dense accompaniment by piano add to the overall strength of the score, a fact pretty much evident from the very beginning. ‘Overture’ presents the work’s strongest theme, and is mirrored by the similarly structured, concluding ‘Paul’s End’. Built through a very intense and loud piano structure on a fast 6/8 metre, the intense piece is enriched with dissonant chords. The pianists’ left hand here serves as the strong and steady basis while the right hand leads the wonderful piece with complex melody building techniques.

    Broken left-hand chord arpeggios are the basis for the softer ‘Paul is Dying’. Elegant legatos lead through a sentimental and melancholic approach, with some louder dramatic points, all in a cue that accurately describes an important accident in the story. As happens throughout the score, a narrator enters first and then soprano with tenor, along with the other voices later on, take over and densely interweave throughout in dialogue forms.

    Another particularly interesting cue, is ‘Two halves of the same body’, where Paul is possessed by worries about his life. The piece starts off in a heady and hypnotizing tone then gets intense towards its end, all up until it changes to major scales in a dramatic way. ‘The Somnambulist’ presents the secondary theme of the score, an arpeggio motif in natty 3/4 metre. Several disturbing events take place during the scenes that occur during this piece, essentially heady but at the same time bizarrely melodic. It’s incredibly evocative scoring: one can’t help but to see the images of someone walking in his sleep and trying to hold a steady balance.

    During the score we find some upsetting and tense pieces, enriched with modern harmony, augmented and diminished chords and even dissonance; ‘She slapped me’ and ‘They lived their dream’ are two bright examples. The second disc is slightly more conventional and particularly reminiscent of the composer’s most popular works, like The Hours, The Fog of War and Naqoyqatsi, always with the presence of the vocal soloists. ‘One Wheel Spinning’ sets off with a truly beautiful, melancholic, fragile piano instrumental piece, strongly reminiscent of The Hours. During ‘Cocoon of Shawls’, the secondary theme is set over densely built ascending piano arpeggios, the piece rising into an emotionally charged and particularly dramatic climax. The same theme also appears once again, just before the end, with ‘She Took the Path’.

    Les Enfants Terribles is indeed a very fine release, focusing on the dramatic, complex and tense modern voice of Philip Glass. Listeners familiar with his overall work will find numerous references here, like the composer’s trademarked minimalist chord processions, repetitions and arpeggios, or the particularly moving and melodic passages echoing his most popular works like The Hours. However, while interweaved with vocal soloists and taken through a notable modern operatic approach, it’s evident that this is a very eclectic work aimed at specific audiences and particularly at Philip Glass devotees. I have strong doubts that the general film score collectors would appreciate a work like this so care is advisable with this one here.

    Demetris Christodoulides

    Rating: 3.5

    Michael McLennan adds:-

    Few composers amaze me as much as Philip Glass does. Possibly John Williams alone among the living catches me by surprise so often. The 'Overture' here outlines possibly one of the most dynamic pieces Glass has ever penned. Presented as a dialogue for three pianos, it shatters and spirals * a marvelous opening. And a marvelous finale * when the piece returns at the end of the 'Game' in 'Paul's End'.

    The rest is slightly more difficult to access in the absence of the accompanying dances. The interaction between libretto, piano and dancers must be a marvel, but as an unaccompanied aural work it doesn't quite connect over its extended development. Still there are some incredible moments * 'Paul is Dying', a development of some of the piano ideas presented in The Hours, is a moving work.

    A difficult work, but undoubtedly the work of a master of the art of dramatic composition. Demetris is right to caution film score collectors though. As the exact visual stimulus for this music may never be known to us (unless it is via the inspiration of Cocteau's film), it is sometimes a hard work to relate to by all but the most ardent fan of Philip Glass.

    Michael McLennan


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