Some years there was a vogue for what were termed portmanteau films - films
that were composed of two or three or more separate stories linked by a single
theme that might have been quite tenuous such as passengers on a train or
ship or visitors to a holiday camp; or it might have been an object a valuable
possession passing through several owners and generations such as
a Yellow Rolls Royce. Here we have an obvious choice - a valuable violin
- the sort of possession that just cries out for the portmanteau treatment.
Maybe it has been done before? I am not sure. Anyway it gives the producers
and Joshua Bell the excuse - pardon me, the opportunity - to play music from
many different periods and many styles as the violin passes through many
hands through three centuries, beginning in Cremona where the violin is made,
thence to Vienna at the height of its musical fame and then on to Oxford;
next comes modern-day communist China and, finally, Montreal. On the way
Corigliano ensures that Bell has plenty of opportunities to display his
considerable virtuosity with the usual pyrotechnics.
I have to say that this score, for me, is a perfect example of the old adage,
the whole is better than the sum of its parts. I am therefore taking the
unusual step of splitting this review into two parts. First I will review
the underscoring music and then the 17 minute composition, The Red Violin,
Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra, which appears to have been assembled
(an unkind word because as you will note this is a worthy composition in
its own right) from the OST music.
The score, for solo violin and strings with spare use of percussion, starts
with a female voice wordlessly intoning Anna's Theme which reminds me very
much of Alfred Newman's love theme from Love is a Many Splendoured
Thing. For a moment, I thought I was back aboard Titanic with
James Horner and when Bell enters beneath in support and continues alone
before being supported by the strings of the orchestra I felt I was in
Schindlers List country. The music here is reflective and towards
the end, beautifully rippling, but rather melancholy. The slow Main Title
music written for strings prolongs and intensifies this feeling of melancholy
rising to a tragic/passionate reiteration of Anna's Theme. "Death of Anna",
placed on high strings suggests something profoundly evil or tragic. I have
not seen the film (to the best of my knowledge it has not arrived in the
UK yet) but it suggests to me thousands of bats screeching in a cave but
it might also denote death from a plague? "The Birth of the Red Violin" is
another cue that begins in the shadows which gradually lighten as the strings
ascend; and one can guess at the skill and dedication invested in the creation
of the violin. "The Red Violin" cue which ends the Cremona sequence is Bell's
chance to show off some virtuosity.
The Vienna music opens in a more cheery mood. The style is Haydn or Mozart.
Bell is allowed once more to do some double stopping and other technical
displays as he stands in for Kaspar's audition and then we have a gently
ornamented Baroque evocation of a "Journey to Vienna." A ticking metronome
dictates the pace and development of "Etudes" (which is intrusive for repeated
playings; this is a bad production judgment because this track contains some
of Bell's most impressive playing). Appropriately mournful music accompanies
"Death of Kaspar".
The Oxford sequence begins with the most extrovert and cheerful music of
the whole score. "The Gypsies" gives Bell the opportunity to play gypsy-style
and he clearly enjoys himself here. Ethnic instruments used in the backing
help sustain an authentic feel and the music is influenced by Bartók
and Kodály. "Pope's Gypsy Cadenza" speaks for itself. "Coitus Musicalis"
wistfully recalls Anna's Theme with Bell pensive against high strings, then
long held cello and middle string chords. Thi is one of the warmest and most
appealing tracks with a lovely solo cello meditation.
"Victoria's departure" throws us into sadness and despair once more. "Pope's
Concert" is impressive fast-tempo virtuosity. In "Pope's Betrayal" Bell develops
Anna's theme disconsonantly then rebelliously for much of its length before
an abrupt crescendo suggesting Pope's betrayal brings in the orchestra.
The China sequence opens quietly with the soloist playing long held chords
in the violin's high register. Again the mood is sad and reflective in the
"Journey to China" as though the music is weighed down by so much sorrow.
"People's Revolution" is a modern Chinese (political?) folk song for children's
voices and accordion seguing into a plaintive and infinitely sad comment
by the strings reflecting on the way the tune was originally treated in years
gone by and the feeling is intensified by another recollection of Anna's
theme as the cue's second half, "Death of Chou Yuan" is reached.
The music grows darker and more tragic yet in the Montreal sequence for the
"Moritz Discovers the Red Violin" cue - ghostly string slitherings give an
eerie effect. "Moritz's Theme" is sadly but beautifully reflective - the
Bartókian influence is here again. "The Theft" uses low strings and
harp in suitable sinister, tension-filled mode with percussion punctuation.
The final cue "End Titles" recalls the main theme as another Bell cadenza
before the strings creep softly in with consolatory and compassionate commentary.
A nice affecting ending to a score that demands some commitment from the
listener. I have enjoyed it more on repeated listenings. But be warned, this
music is preponderantly dark and melancholic.
The Red Violin - Chaccone for Violin and Orchestra.
Corigliano's 17½-minute work drawn from his music for the film is much
more impressive. It is more richly scored, more varied in its emotional range
and more colourful in its orchestration. Once more Bell meditates with a
solitary female voice on Anna's Theme after a powerful orchestral opening.
Then a sublime episode speaks of pastoral serenity; it is as though a flock
of birds has risen abruptly skywards after feeding on the ground, disturbed
by grumbling bassoons and bass drum before the violin and strings, and, later,
woodwinds enter in Lark Ascending mode to restore peace. An ecstatic
climax is reached rejoicing Anna's theme. As the brass enters the tempo quickens
and the colours intensify as excitement mounts and the brass chases the strings
with laconic, often violent, percussion punchings. A huge frightening climax
is reached and the music fractures like shattered glass, an amazing moment
this. Now we enter a remote and quite chilly fantasy region, the violin morosely
reflecting at the top of its register, the orchestra's deeper voices maintaining
an eerie low pedal point. Again the writing, in this part of the work, is
imaginative with some very interesting touches - slightly atonal (I was reminded
a little of Gary's abduction music from John Williams's Close Encounters
at one point.) The music gradually regains its warmth and becomes more romantic
and ardent. A harsher, crueller tone sometimes interjects. The music continues
through another impressive show-piece cadenza for Bell and on through some
very colourful and bizarre territory to reach a blazing conclusion.