TALE OF A LAKE (JÄRVEN TARINA) – Panu Aaltio
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
A sequel of sorts to the 2012 film Tale of a Forest [Metsän Tarina], Tale of a Lake – or, to give it its original name, Järven Tarina – is a feature-length nature documentary from Finland directed by Marko Röhr and Kim Saarniluoto. According to the press which accompanies the soundtrack, the documentary focuses on the thousands of lakes and rivers in Finland with stories that follow birds, fish and their spawn, and examine the lives of critically endangered seal pups. Featuring the narration of Samuli Edelmann, and the voice of Johanna Kurkela as the mystical water spirit Ahitar, the film was described as “an emotional journey and a breathtaking travelogue” when it opened to general critical acclaim in cinemas in Scandinavia in the early months of 2016.
The score for Tale of a Lake is by the massively talented young Finnish composer Panu Aaltio, who received a great deal of critical acclaim, and won an IFMCA Award, for his score for Tale of a Forest. Like its predecessor, the new score is a knockout, capturing the serenity of Finland’s lush landscape with music of real beauty and depth. The entire score is full of rich orchestral textures, and the most impressive thing about Aaltio’s writing here is the way in which the score provides a showcase for the entire ensemble. This isn’t a one-note, one tone score; the full complement of players, across the entire range of instruments, has its moment to shine, and the way in which Aaltio allows them to combine in beautiful arrangements shows him to be a composer who truly understands this sort of writing.
In terms of tone and texture, the score runs the gamut, from light and comedic, to grand and spacious, encompassing the full range of emotions felt by those who live in these far-flung lakes. The anchor point of it all is Johanna Kurkela’s breathy voice, which binds the score together; she provides an almost religious tone to the opening cue, “Ahitar, the Water Spirit,” backed by expressive, gorgeous orchestral tones which have a sense of calmness, and a slight chill, but are truly lovely. Her subsequent appearances, in cues like the wonderful “First Morning,” “Reunion,” “Ancient Spirits,” the lovely “Under the Frozen Surface,” the enticing and engaging “Crab Guardians,” and the rousing finale “The Water Cycle,” illustrate the film’s narrative idea that the Water Spirit is the guardian of all the aquatic creatures of the world, and provide an appropriate overarching framework around which the rest of the score is built.
Numerous cues are notable for their outstanding instrumental, emotional, or thematic content. Pieces like “Spring Brook” are vivacious and lively, with dancing string lines, lilting woodwind writing, and a rhythmic piano core. “Tale of a Lake” is more solemn, even a little regretful, with a solo trumpet line leading the cue in combination with Kurkela’s voice. “Hide and Seek” is more playful, with clarinets and flutes tiptoeing across a bed of pizzicato strings. “Reunion” is a spirited classical dance for rampant violins. “A Family Divided” is a heartfelt cello piece. “Bug Ballet” is a mischievous waltz that Strauss would have been proud to have written. “The Spawn” picks up the tempo, and the percussion underbelly, to present something approaching an action piece.
Later, “Coming of the Fall” has a gentle, peaceful quality, especially when the cello and piano combine. “The Gulls and the Eagle” is an exciting, adventurous track with flourishing brass writing and a swooping, freewheeling sense of life and openness in the strings. “Brisk and Idle” has an unexpectedly jazzy sound, with sultry clarinet writing and a languid piano roll. “The Birds Farewell” is a sweeping, triumphant piece with a contemporary percussive riffs and a rhythmic center that will remind some listeners of The Lion King. “Seal Pup,” the longest cue of the album, brings together several recurring ideas, including the vocals, the solo cello writing, the expressive woodwind ideas, and even some icy metallic percussion, in one of the score’s most rewarding tracks. In fact, every single cue, through the entire score, has something noteworthy to recommend, with no downtime and no dead spots to bring down the overall quality.
If one was to make any sort of criticism it would be to note the lack of strong and memorable recurring thematic ideas. There are a couple of them, especially a recurring motif that emerges from Kurkela’s vocal performance and often appears in subsequent cues as a countermelody, or with an alteration in rhythm, but it’s not something that listeners are going to be whistling after the album ends. Instead, Aaltio treats most of the film’s set pieces as standalone vignettes, in much the same way that other great nature documentary composers like George Fenton have done in the past, and so to highlight this as a negative would be nit-picking in the extreme. Truthfully, there is virtually nothing about Tale of a Lake that warrants criticism. It has stunningly rendered orchestral passages, cleverly varied instrumental combinations, and strong emotional content that veers from playful to poignant – pretty much everything one could possibly want from a score of this type. Although we’re only a few weeks into 2016, if any other documentary comes close to surpassing Aaltio’s achievements here, it will have to be something extraordinarily special indeed.
Buy the Tale of a Lake soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Ahitar, the Water Spirit (3:37)
- Spring Brook (1:55)
- Tale of a Lake (2:16)
- Hide and Seek (3:40)
- First Morning (4:56)
- Reunion (1:40)
- A Family Divided (1:46)
- Bug Ballet (2:34)
- The Spawn (2:10)
- Frog Wrestling (3:06)
- Ancient Spirits (1:58)
- Coming of the Fall (1:35)
- Macro World (2:33)
- Children (2:52)
- The Gulls and the Eagle (2:12)
- Brisk and Idle (2:06)
- The Birds’ Farewell (2:23)
- Under the Frozen Surface (3:15)
- Life in the Depths (4:44)
- Crab Guardians (3:38)
- Seal Pup (5:49)
- The Water Cycle (2:13)
Running Time: 62 minutes 55 seconds
Moviescore Media MSM-16002 (2016)
Music composed and conducted by Panu Aaltio. Album produced by Panu Aaltio and Mikael Carlsson.