Home > Reviews > LADIES IN LAVENDER – Nigel Hess


ladiesinlavenderOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Nigel Hess is a composer who doesn’t get  enough press. An extremely talented composer who has written music for dozens of British TV series over the last 20 or so years, he is one of those people who music is immediately familiar (his themes for “Maigret”, “Wycliffe”, “Campion”, “Dangerfield” and “Hetty Wainthrop Investigates” are classics), but who is almost never recognized by the public at large. I would wager that the vast majority of the people reading this have never heard of him before, and do not own any of his earlier CDs. Bearing that in mind, the fact that he was hand-picked by actor/director Charles Dance to score his debut film, Ladies in Lavender, gives me a great deal of satisfaction. Hess has a talent which begs to be discovered by the wider world.

The film stars two grand dames of the British theatre, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, as Ursula and Janet Widdington, two sisters living a secluded life in a small village in 1930s Cornwall. Having never married, and never shown any real interest in the opposite sex throughout their lives, the last thing these two ageing spinsters expect is to fall in love – but that is exactly what happens when Andrea (Daniel Brühl), mysterious foreigner unable to speak English, washes ashore on the beach by their home. As he recuperates in their home, and despite the sisters being almost three times his age, Ursula and Janet find themselves inexplicably vying for his platonic affections. However, in addition to the rumors that are flying round the village that Andrea is a spy, Ursula and Janet find they have a rival in the beautiful young Olga (Natascha McElhone), to whom Andrea takes an immediate shine…

In addition to the praise bestowed upon Dance for his direction and Dench and Smith for their performances, Nigel Hess has been singled out by many respected film critics for his exquisite classical score. For the film, Hess employed the services of virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell, who previously worked with John Corigliano on ‘The Red Violin’ and James Horner on ‘Iris’. His performances, combined the massed ranks of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, drive the score: in the film, Andrea is a virtuoso violinist, a character trait which allows Hess to link his writing directly to one of the film’s main plot points, and allowing him to showcase his soloist to great effect throughout the score.

With Bell’s soulful, impassioned playing as its centerpiece, Ladies in Lavender is a delightfully lush, distinctly classical score, which revels in its ‘Englishness’ and evokes the lush fields, green pastures and restrained emotions associated with the time period. The theme for the sisters, as heard in the opening cue, is a gentle, beguiling melody which illustrates the idyllic lifestyle they enjoy, while somehow hinting at a life’s worth of missed opportunities in love and romance. Building from Bell’s violin opening to encompass a woodwind solo, and eventually the entire orchestra, this one theme would be a high point in any album – but such was Hess’s passion for the project that, on Ladies in Lavender, it is a mere starting point.

As the score progresses, more motifs develop. The theme for “Olga” combines Bell’s violin with a tender piano melody performed by Hess himself, while “Teaching Andrea” has a slightly more playful tone, introducing a bittersweet oboe theme to complement Bell’s ever-present violin. The showstopper, however, is the simply stunning ‘Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra’, which begins with another gentle Bell violin solo but, during the course of the ensuing three minutes, blossoms into a scintillating orchestral statement of great power and beauty.

Later cues, such as “Our Secret”, “The Letter” and “Stirrings”, feature more introspective, subdued piano-and-string interludes, while “Potatoes” features a jaunty little duet between pizzicato strings and a clarinet that introduces some light humor into the proceedings. The conclusive pair of “A Broken Heart” and “Two Sisters” recapitulate some of the earlier piano material, ending on a slightly melancholy note.

In addition to Hess’s original score, the soundtrack album also includes several classical pieces, including the famous ‘Mèditation’ from Thaïs by Massenet, Debussy’s ‘The Girl with the Flaxen Hair’ and Paganini’s exhilarating ‘Carnival of Venice’. Each of these were specially re-recorded by Hess and Bell for use as source music in the film, and which further enhance the overtly classical nature of the listening experience. There is also one track of traditional source music, a flamboyant, vaguely comical Polish dance entitled “Zabawa Weselna” which dashes through the orchestra like a whirlwind.

If one had to make comparisons, it could be said that fans of George Fenton or Patrick Doyle would find the music of Nigel Hess to their liking. He has a comforting, appealing, quintessentially English sound to his music, that makes his music immediately accessible, yet at the same time just a little more satisfying than traditional Hollywood fare, if you know what I mean. I sincerely hope that Ladies in Lavender plays well internationally, and that as a result Hess’s music becomes more appreciated on a global basis. As talented as he is, and despite his successes on British television, he has the potential to be a major player on the world film music stage, if only he was given the opportunity.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Ladies in Lavender (4:04)
  • Olga (3:29)
  • Teaching Andrea (2:52)
  • Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra (3:39)
  • Mèditation from Thaïs (written by Jules Massenet) (4:59)
  • Our Secret (1:58)
  • On the Beach (2:33)
  • Introduction and Tarantella, Op.43 (written by Fabio de Sarasate) (5:15)
  • The Letter (2:24)
  • Zabawa Weselna (Polish Dance) (traditional) (2:40)
  • Stirrings (1:48)
  • Potatoes (1:49)
  • The Girl with the Flaxen Hair (written by Claude Debussy) (2:36)
  • A Broken Heart (3:32)
  • Two Sisters (2:21)
  • The Carnival of Venice (written by Niccolo Paganini) (9:18)

Running Time: 55 minutes 37 seconds

Sony Classical SK-92689 (2004)

Music composed and conducted by Nigel Hess. Performed by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Orchestrations by Nigel Hess. Featured musical soloists Joshua Bell, Simon Mulligan and Nigel Hess. Recorded and mixed by Toby Wood. Edited by Erick Jordan. Mastered by Martin Giles. Album produced by Nigel Hess.

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