Best Scores of 2015 – Spain and Portugal, Part I
The first installment in my series of articles looking at the best “under the radar” scores from around the world concentrates on music from films from Spain and Portugal. I have been very vocal in the past about my admiration for the music coming out of the Iberian peninsula, and this year just reinforces my view that some of the best film music in the world right now is being written there. My first look at the area features new scores by some of my favorite contemporary composers, including Federico Jusid and Nuno Malo, and there will be more to come later!
Atrapa la Bandera (Capture the Flag) is a Spanish animated film directed by Enrique Gato. It follows the adventures of a 12-year-old boy named Mike, the grandson of a former NASA astronaut, who discovers a plot by an eccentric billionaire who wants to fly to the moon, destroy the American flag planted by there by the crew of Apollo XI, and claim the moon’s vast mineral resources. Mike, along with several of his friends and a pet lizard who imagines himself to be Godzilla, hatches a plan to stow away on the billionaire’s space shuttle and thwart his plans. The score for the film is by Spanish composer Diego Navarro, one of that country’s rising film music stars, and who might be known to American readers via his work with Varese Sarabande, as well as his regular appearances conducting film music concerts around the world.
Navarro’s score is huge – fully orchestral with a large ensemble (the Symphony Orchestra of Tenerife) and classic, epic heroic thematic writing. It is built around a large, adventurous main theme heard at its fullest in the opening cue, “Tema Central de Atrapa la Bandera,” a broad and wide-ranging melody full of life and playfulness, which has more than a hint of John Williams and James Horner – subsequent recapitulations in the flighty “Vuelo de Entrenamiento,” the title track “Atrapa la Bandera,” “Persecución Final”, and the conclusive “Vuelta a Casa” are superb, especially when Navarro brings out his choir.
The action writing in the score is especially impressive with cues like “Luchanda Por La Bandera,” “Activando el Plan,” the gallantly patriotic “El Saturno V,” “Huida Entre Manglares,” the incredibly dramatic “Alunizando,” and “¡Sonríe, Todo el Mundo te Está Viendo!” impressing mightily with their scope and energy; some of the brass writing these cues is especially notable for its forthrightness and fluidity. Navarro counterbalances these with more suspenseful music in cues like “Misión Especial” and the wonderful “El Fracaso No Es Una Opción,” which will bring back strong, pleasant memories of Horner’s Apollo 13. There’s also a few gentle comedy tracks – this is a children’s movie, after all – a lush and dream-like interlude in “Frank Pisa la Luna,” and even a full-on Sousa-style Americana march in “Entrenamiento de Astronautas”.
Unfortunately the score for Atrapa la Bandera has not been released commercially, and is only available as a promo produced by Navarro for awards consideration purposes, but if and when it is ever finally released, I recommend it to all. Fans of big, exciting sci-fi adventure scoring, and fans of James Horner in particular, will find a great deal of it right up their alley.
Track Listing: 01 Tema Central de Atrapa La Bandera (4:21), 02 Un Pequeño Paso Para El Hombre, Un Gran Paso Para la Humanidad (0:39), 03 Luchando Por la Bandera (1:55), 04 Igor (0:22), 05 Tema de Carson (0:54), 06 La Marcha del Abuelo (0:44), 07 Activando el Plan (0:51), 08 Misión Especial (3:04), 09 La Habitación del Abuelo Frank (1:46), 10 El Saturno V (2:04), 11 Vuelo de Entrenamiento (2:11), 12 Igor Se Muere (0:50), 13 Entrenamiento de Astronautas (1:49), 14 Huida Entre Manglares (3:23), 15 El Fracaso No Es Una Opción (6:50), 16 Ingravidez (0:37), 17 ¿Abuelo O Comandante? (2:36), 18 Alunizando (2:59), 19 Carson Llega a La Luna (0:57), 20 Frank Pisa La Luna (1:44), 21 Atrapa La Bandera (2:33), 22 Carson Desvela Su Secreto (0:56), 23 ¡Sonríe, Todo El Mundo Te Está Viendo! (1:47), 24 La Confidencia (2:04), 25 Persecución Final (4:14), 26 Vuelta a Casa (2:20). Promo, 54 minutes 29 seconds.
Carlos, Rey Emperador is a Spanish television series, directed by Oriol Ferrer and broadcast on the Spanish national network on Televisión Española. It is the successor to the popular series Isabel, and continues the story by focusing on her grandson, Carlos, who was the Duke of Burgundy and ruler of the Netherlands from 1506, the ruler of the Spanish Empire from 1516, and ruler of the Holy Roman Emperor from 1519, until his voluntary abdication from all three roles in 1555. During his reign he was embattled in numerous wars throughout Europe, but today he is most remembered for his role in supporting the various conquistadors who travelled to, and conquered, much of Central and South America as part of the expansion of the Spanish empire. The series stars Álvaro Cervantes as Carlos, Blanca Suárez as his wife Isabella of Portugal, and has an astonishing score by Argentine composer Federico Jusid.
Jusid’s work on the three seasons is Isabel was universally lauded by critics and fans alike, and the score for Carlos, Rey Emperador is likely to receive similar plaudits. The score is magnificent: written for a full orchestra and choir, as well as a female soprano soloist singing in Latin, it has same overwhelming beauty as its predecessor, with similar religious overtones, hints of period-specific renaissance music, but also works in some more vivid action sequences too, accompanying the conquistadors and their battles with the Aztec and Incas.
The “Main Title” is a strong, thrusting piece with Latin vocals and a swirling tempestuous undercurrent. This gives way to the utterly stunning “Ecce Gratum,” a more romantic, lyrical piece featuring warm oboes and a sublime soprano solo vocal, again singing in Latin, that grows over the course of five minutes before culminating in a series of majestic, spine-tingling orchestral and choral crescendos. The orchestral and choral writing continues through equally superb cues like the gorgeous “Lux Aeterna,” or the dark and oppressive “Fortis Rex,” which again embrace a spiritual, religioso sound – some of them have a pseudo Lord of the Rings vibe to them, similar Shore’s pieces for the reveals of Rivendell or Moria – but achieve different dramatic aims. “The Emperor” is perfect music for a regal coronation, and could have been written by Handel himself.
More romantic music features in cues like “Isabel of Portugal” and the conclusive “Romance,” giving Jusid the chance to embrace his more delicate, sensitive side with period-appropriate string instruments, delicate vocals, and Morricone-like woodwind writing. The “Romance,” especially, has hints of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana about it, if that gives you some kind of notion as to what sort of style the music adopts. Elsewhere, “The Nobility of the King” and “The French Court” embraces some more period-specific ideas in the orchestration, with harpsichords joining the orchestra in lively, occasionally quite insistent, rhythms. “Battle,” on the other hand, is a brutally aggressive action cue full of slashing strings, snares, and militaristic brass, while “The New World” is a gorgeous pastoral piece rich with guitars and ethnic woodwinds, conjuring up imagery of unspoiled wildernesses and sylvan locations, untouched by outsiders, and unaware of the fate about to befall it with the arrival of the conquistadors.
Unfortunately the score for Carlos Rey Emperador has not been released commercially, and is only available as a promo produced by Jusid for awards consideration purposes, but it is likely that it will see a release sometime in 2016, as was the case with the soundtrack for Isabel. When it does, don’t hesitate – this is one of the best scores of 2015. In the meantime, several cues are available for streaming via Jusid’s personal website.
Track Listing: 01 Main Titles (1:00), 02 Ecce Gratum (5:32), 03 Lux Aeterna (2:42), 04 The Emperor (2:31), 05 Fortis Rex A (1:30), 06 Isabel of Portugal (4:01), 07 The New World (4:53), 08 Battle (1:53), 09 Fortis Rex B (1:19), 10 The Nobility of the King (2:36), 11 The French Court (2:30), 12 Romance (3:26). Promo, 33 minutes 54 seconds.
Extraordinary Tales is an animated feature film from Spain directed by Raul Garcia, and an anthology of five stories adapted from the classic Gothic horror and romance stories of Edgar Allan Poe – The Tell-Tale Heart, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar, and The Masque of the Red Death. Each tale is given a unique animated look, inspired by sources as diverse as classic Hollywood black-and-white monster films, or the pulpy feel of EC Comics, and is narrated by a stable of legendary genre directors and actors, including Guillermo del Toro, Julian Sands, and the late Christopher Lee.
The score for Extraordinary Tales is by the 40-year-old Spanish composer Sergio de la Puente, and is a Gothic horror delight – occasionally darkly romantic, occasionally brooding and mysterious, occasionally dissonant and horrific. De la Puente does an outstanding job stretching his limited budget, recording with an orchestra in Bratislava, resulting in an entertaining and engaging work that will appeal to fans of the genre. After the “Overture” – a delightfully macabre collision of strings, pianos, and a rampaging solo violin element – de la Puente structured his score as five elongated sites, each covering one of the different books in the anthology.
The House of Usher material has a sense tragic romance and faded glory; the theme for “Roderick” is lovely, a piano and harp duet augmented by swooning strings, while the counterpart theme for “Madeleine” is overbearingly austere, and the “Fall” plays up the tragedy with church organs, chugging string writing and whispering voices. The conclusive “Fall of the House of Usher Sonata” is staggeringly beautiful, with de la Puente allowing his piano and violin soloists the freedom to be expressive.
The Valdemar section is more out-and-out horrific, with a wailing theremin and tolling bells adding a moody atmosphere to the throbbing orchestral ideas, resulting in a sound not unlike that which Danny Elfman provides for Tim Burton’s more ghoulish films. The Red Death sequence has a more quasi-classical, almost medieval feel, with increased use of voices and dance rhythms, especially in “The Ball,” but is also spookier and the most out-and-out horrific, with ghostly moaning voices and orchestral dissonances becoming most prominent in “The Red Death” itself. Finally, the Pit and the Pendulum movement has an overpowering sense of oppressive dominance, with huge brass outbursts during “Dark Times,” more church organs in “The Trial,” as well as the clever use of scraping metallic sounds in the percussion section.
Unfortunately, yet again, the score for Extraordinary Tales has not been released commercially, and is only available as a promo produced by de la Puente for awards consideration purposes. Note: the music for the fifth part, based on The Tell-Tale Heart, was written by a second composer, Javier Gómez de Guereña, and is not included on this promo.
Track Listing: 01 Overture (0:44), 02 Escape from the House of Usher (1:33), 03 Roderick (1:43), 04 Madeline (2:45), 05 The Fall (2:56), 06 Fall of the House of Usher Sonata (1:52), 07 Valdemar Theme (1:19), 08 Doctor P (1:44), 09 Experiment (1:01), 10 Mesmerism (1:46), 11 Awakening (0:53), 12 The Facts in the Case of M.Valdemar Suite (2:02), 13 The Smell of Death (2:52), 14 The Ball (3:11), 15 Bacchanal (1:28), 16 The Red Death (3:24), 17 The Masque of the Red Death Suite (2:27), 18 Dark Times (0:44), 19 The Trial (3:03), 20 The Dungeon (1:46), 21 The Pendulum (2:22), 22 The Pit and the Pendulum Suite (2:56), 23 The Death and Poe (2:38), 24 Finale (1:01). Promo, 48 minutes 09 seconds.
O Pátio das Cantigas (The Courtyard of Songs) is the highest grossing Portuguese-language film of 2015; it’s a remake of the classic film of the same name from 1942, which is one of the most beloved Portuguese films of all time. The new version is directed by Leonel Vieira and is a romantic comedy drama set in Old Lisbon, which follows the residents of a typical neighborhood over a Popular Saints festival weekend, focusing on their desires, relationships, and romantic conquests. The film is a slice-of-life of the kind someone like Federico Fellini would have made, with all the gentle comedy and inter-personal relationships that his films often explored.
The score for O Pátio das Cantigas is by Nuno Malo, who over the past few years has risen to become the most successful Portuguese composer in film music today. Taking his inspiration from the film’s Fellini-esque setting, his score is a lovely, sunny, Mediterranean delight, with music that seems to perfectly capture the sun-kissed rooftops, the passionate people, and their rich cultural heritage, all in one. It is heavily influenced by the work of composers like Nino Rota and Ennio Morricone, and is intimate, lively, longing, romantic, and tuneful, all at the same time, with a strong basis in Spanish/Portuguese folk music. It’s also really very beautiful in places, something at which Malo has excelled for years.
The two opening cues, both entitled “Abertura,” introduce the main elements of the score with light, playful woodwinds and guitars, more sultry saxophone performances, jaunty rhythmic ideas, and a twinkle in the eye. These ideas continue through cues like “A Maria Da Graca Vai Voltar” and “Evaristo Resolve o Caso,” where upright pianos take the lead; “Rosa Anda Pela Vila,” with its effortlessly pretty flute part; “Bebado,” “Ressaca Para Guitarra,” and “Evaristo da Explicacao – Proposta,” with their comically jaunty guitar melodies; and the romantic and appealing “Rosa e Narciso Falam.”
The two “Fazendo Amor à Portuguesa” cues are more upbeat, with almost a jazz/light rock vibe, while “Everisto Convida Rosa” is more downbeat and melancholy, with the expressive acoustic guitar leading the music. The “Tema de Amor” for the lead female character, Rosa, is dreamy and wistful, with a gentle string wash accompanying the guitar chords, while the subsequent “Sonho Erotico” is a nostalgic 1980s/90s throwback for a jazzy, sultry saxophone. It’s all utterly lovely, and will especially appeal to those whose tastes sometimes lie in the warm, inviting sounds of southern Europe.
Unfortunately, the score for O Pátio das Cantigas has not been released commercially, and is only available as a promo produced by Malo for awards consideration purposes.
Track Listing: 01 Abertura I (3:08), 02 Abertura II (4:58), 03 A Maria Da Graca Vai Voltar (1:42), 04 Rosa Anda Pela Vila (0:40), 05 Fazendo Amor à Portuguesa I (0:33), 06 Fazendo Amor à PortuguesA II (0:33), 07 Depois do Amor (0:56), 08 Everisto Convida Rosa/Everisto Chega a Casa (3:32), 09 Bebado (2:29), 10 Tema de Amor – Rosa (2:15), 11 Sonho Erotico (0:53), 12 Ressaca Para Guitarra (2:42), 13 Tema de Amor – Rosa e Narciso (1:17), 14 Explosao (0:36), 15 Inspector (4:38), 16 Amalia e Susana – Evaristo Prestes a Viajar (1:41), 17 Evaristo e Filha Vao Para Comboio (0:35), 18 Susanna Confessa na Estacao (3:01), 19 Rosa e Narciso Falam (1:08), 20 Evaristo Resolve o Caso (1:38), 21 Evaristo da Explicacao – Proposta (2:59), 22 Ernesto Planeia Ataque (1:14), 23 Casamento Indiano (0:46), 24 A Caminho da Loja (1:54). Promo, 45 minutes 47 seconds.
Palmeiras en la Nieve (Palm Trees in the Snow) is a Spanish-language romantic drama directed by Fernando González Molina, based on the novel by Luz Gabás, which tells the epic story of a Spanish family across several generations. Set against the backdrop of Equatorial Guinea’s battle for independence in 1968, it focuses on Clarence, the owner of a large cocoa plantation, who discovers some shocking family history as she researches the life of her grandfather Kilian. Kilian travelled from his native land to the island of Fernando Pó in Equatorial Guinea, one of the few Spanish colonies in Africa, to establish a the plantation, but apparently once embarked on a forbidden love affair with a native girl which threatened to tear his family apart. The film stars Mario Casas and Adriana Ugarte, and has a score by Los Angeles-based Spanish composer Lucas Vidal which is, in my opinion, the best score he has ever written.
Rich, romantic, and bold, Vidal uses a full orchestra to capture the wide emotions of the score, while adding in an array of traditional ethnic woodwind and percussion instruments to add the flavor of Spanish West Africa. The theme presented in the second cue, “Viaje de Culturas,” is gorgeous, a florid piano melody that gradually grows to feature the full orchestra in impressive proportions. Some of the thematic writing has that precise, busy feeling that some of Alexandre Desplat’s period pieces have – I’m thinking of things like The Painted Veil specifically – and Vidal’s music is all the richer for emulating that sound. Later cues like “Julia y Jacobo,” “Vida en África,” “Tortugas,” “La Vuelta,” “El Final de Una Era,” and the magnificent “El Muelle,” continue the stylistics, with cascading piano lines, deeply romantic cello writing, and bubbly flutes full of energy and movement.
“Despedida de Antón” is more emotional, filled with a tragic sense of longing, and accentuates the elegant undulating piano motif from elsewhere in the score with a beautiful, wistful solo violin. Similarly, the heavily melancholy “Enamorándose” seems to revel in a sense of profound loss. Meanwhile, pieces like “Anita Guau” are more contemporary, with jazzy riffs and African tribal rhythms, while tracks like “La Playa” have a more pronounced ethnic quality, with breathy flute lines and more insistent percussion ideas augmenting the orchestra.
Lucas Vidal is one of those composers who has been threatening to break through into the real mainstream for quite some time – his scores for Mientras Duermes in 2011 and The Raven in 2012 were both outstanding, while his score for the sixth Fast and Furious movie in 2013 suffered from a troubled post-production schedule that led to a fair amount of his score having to be farmed out to other composers. Hopefully, Palmeiras en la Nieve will see him returning back to the forefront of people’s minds, and back on a level playing field with the other outstanding Spanish composers of his generation.
The soundtrack, on the Spanish label Atresmúsica, features an extensive amount of Vidal’s score, and an original song co-written by Vidal and performed by the popular Spanish singer Pablo Alborán, as well as a couple of tracks by contemporary Equatoguinean artists Brigitte Emaga and Yolanda Eyama.
Track Listing: 01 Flashback (2:25), 02 Viaje de Culturas (5:02), 03 Cascada (2:20), 04 Julia y Jacobo (2:15), 05 Anita Guau (1:10), 06 Bailando Palmeras (performed by Brigitte Emaga) (1:17), 07 Vida en África (1:55), 08 Improvisación (1:52), 09 No Te Puedo Querer (1:12), 10 Tortugas (2:41), 11 Perdiendo a Julia (1:07), 12 La Boda (2:26), 13 Despedida de Antón (7:26), 14 Welcome to Malabo (performed by Yolanda Eyama) (4:54), 15 Mama (performed by Yolanda Eyama) (6:44), 16 La Playa (3:04), 17 Ecos del Pasado (2:58), 18 En la Fiesta (1:31), 19 Enamorándose (5:36), 20 La Vuelta (2:49), 22 El Final de Una Era (3:38), 23 El Muelle (3:13), 24 Flashforward (4:26), 25 Palmeras en la Nieve (performed by Pablo Alborán) (3:37). Atresmúsica, 77 minutes 44 seconds.
Sueños de Sal (Dreams of Salt) is a Spanish language documentary feature directed by Alfredo Navarro. According to the film’s website, “The documentary tells the story of four people from the town Novelda, near Alicante in Spain, who have fought for their dreams, despite the many difficulties they found along the way. Alejandro, a blind boy who plays the piano; Irene, a young woman with spina bifida who wants to become independent and have her own home; Simon, an athlete who wants to travel to Thailand to practice Muay Tai, and Mariano, a truck driver whose dream is to learn to play guitar at the age of 62. The film talks about human determination, the spirit of excellence and the strength of the individual when it seems that all is lost, knowing how to change difficulties into opportunities and challenges.” The film’s title related to the fact that the town of Novelda is well known in Spain for its important quarries and mines, including ones for salt, marble, and limestone.
The score for Sueños de Sal is by composer Óscar Navarro, the younger brother of director Alfredo (but no relation to that other composing Navarro, Diego). This is not a case of fraternal nepotism, though; Óscar is a full-fledged film composer in his own right, who studied at USC and previously worked as orchestrator for Christopher Young, and impressed critics in 2013 with his score for the Spanish drama La Mula.
Navarro’s score is superb; fully orchestral, thematic, inspirational, with a Hollywood glow of positivity running through it. Simon’s music is an outstanding homage to sports movie clichés, with the opening cue, “Inspiration” showcasing brass fanfares and cymbal-led crescendos over a chugging string ostinato, and subsequent “Best Brothers” having an emotional string-led sweep that is just sublime. The music for Alejandro, the budding pianist, as one would expect, is a delicious piece for piano and orchestra, full of life and optimism, which segues into a more upbeat piece for piano, orchestra and guitar in “Preparing for the Concert,” which has the vibe of a pop song without lyrics, and builds to a lovely finale.
In contrast, Mariano’s music is more contemporary, with cues like “Mariano Running” and “Mariano” having a more rock-inflected guitar-heavy sound. Irene’s music, however, is just gorgeous; romantic, longing, intimate, with a sumptuous cello solos in “Desolation” and “The Graveyard,” and a playful sound in “The Market” highlighting Rachel Portman-style woodwind and piano writing. A couple of cues towards the end of the score – “The Swimming Pool” and “Comino” – embrace some darker and more abstract writing, including the use of synth textures, but these are the exception rather than the rule. The title track, “Dreams of Salt,” is an original song based on the central theme, with lyrics performed by a children‘s choir singing in Spanish.
Unfortunately, as seems to be the case with all the best scores coming out of Spain this year, the score for Sueños de Sal has not been released commercially, and is only available as a promo produced by Navarro for awards consideration purposes, although you can hear parts of it via Navarro’s Youtube and Soundcloud pages.
Track Listing: 01 Training (1:58), 02 Alejandro (2:17), 03 Preparing for the Concert (3:37), 04 Dreams of Salt (3:45), 05 Mariano Running (2:14), 06 Desolation (1:30), 07 The Graveyard (1:30), 08 The Market (1:57), 09 Best Brothers (1:27), 10 The Swimming Pool (1:31), 11 Comino (1:45), 12 Irene (3:16), 13 Why You and No Other? (1:15), 14 Mariano (1:14). Promo, 29 minutes 16 seconds.