Best Scores of 2016 – Eastern Europe
The third installment in my annual series of articles looking at the best “under the radar” scores from around the world concentrates on music from films from Eastern Europe. Here you will find two scores from Russia – one by a complete newcomer, one by an esteemed veteran – plus one score from Romania (via France and Israel), and three scores from Poland, all of which were written by one of that country’s film music rising stars.
THE HERITAGE OF LOVE [GEROY] – Eduard Artemyev
The Russian film Герой – also known as Geroy, The Heritage of Love, or Hero – is an epic drama film that tells the story of two romances. In the first one, set in 2016, factory worker Andrey Kulikov visits Paris to purchase a classic car, and falls in love with a young woman named Vera Yezerskaya that he meets while exploring the City of Lights. In the second, which is set in the 1920s during the last days of the Russian Empire, a dashing young cavalry officer named Andrey Dolmatov meets and falls in love with a beautiful noblewoman, Duchess Vera Chernisheva. As these love stories unfold in parallel, the connections between the two Andreys and the two Veras are revealed, proving that the path of love and fate is not diminished by time. The film is directed by Yuriy Vasilev, stars Dima Bilan and Svetlana Ivanova, and has a delicious classical score by 79-year-old composer Eduard Artemyev.
Artemyev is best known in the West for his score for the classic sci-fi movie Solaris, and for his collaborations with director Nikita Mikhalkov on Burnt by the Sun and The Barber of Siberia, but hasn’t really been heard much outside his native Russia for 15 years or so. The Heritage of Love is still a Russian film, but the music should have a broad international appeal if enough people take the time to actively seek it out and listen to it.
Several pieces are very impressive indeed. The “Opening Titles” have some beautiful, haunting trumpet performances that have phrasing or intonation reminiscent of classic Morricone, especially when the string wash comes into support it. The unexpected synth textures, turbulent string ostinati, and sampled choir, give the piece some vibrant energy that carries through several subsequent cues.
Gorgeous, slightly melancholy romance for strings, harp, and occasional oboe solos sweep through cues like “Sisters,” the second half of “The News of the Abdication of the King,” “Meeting in the Hospital,” “Don’t Leave Me,” and the heart-melting “Station Goodbye” like a warm breeze, gentle and beguiling. Meanwhile, in “Acquaintance at the Ball (Waltz)” and during the second half of “Rendezvous by Candlelight,” it adopts the swooning sound of classic Hollywood romantic fantasy, as if Max Steiner had been re-awoken and transported to contemporary Moscow, baton in hand. The conclusive song, “Romance,” is based on Artemyev’s love theme and is lushly performed by lead actor/singer-songwriter Dima Bilan.
Meanwhile, “The Link of Times (A Voice from the Future)” features evocative, almost dream-like solo female vocal textures against a sparkling synth undercurrent. The brisk, energetic string lines and soulful trumpet performances from the opening title return in cues such as “Feeling” and the conclusive “The Future Is Already at Hand,” although the former is given a slightly dated sound by the addition of some vaguely 70s synth loops and percussion patterns). “The Paris Meeting” is a wonderfully nostalgic piece of Euro-romance, something that Georges Delerue might have written for Jean-Luc Godard or Truffaut, a collage of breathy vocals and light pop rhythms.
Artemyev also allows the music to embrace some wonderfully old-fashioned sounding action music in three cues: “Rescue” is a stark, punchy action sequence that has a hint of Lalo Schifrin about it; “Icy Traverse” is tense and dramatic, albeit with a reprise of the trumpet motif cutting through the pressure; and “Ambush” is dark and menacing but has a hint of knowing flamboyance in the pulsating piano lines, muted horn fanfares, and swirling string writing.
Unfortunately there is no physical CD of the soundtrack for The Heritage of Love, which will annoy physical media purists, but it is easily downloadable from most online retailers, including Amazon. I’ve heard several scores by Eduard Artemyev over the years, including the majority of his most lauded works, but I actually think that The Heritage of Love might be my favorite: it’s certainly the most approachable and conventionally attractive, and its dedication to developing the lovely romantic theme across the entire score will make it very tempting to anyone who enjoys scores of that nature.
Track Listing: 1. Opening Titles (3:03), 2. Sisters (1:53), 3. The Challenge to a Duel (1:45), 4. The Link of Times (A Voice from the Future) (1:25), 5. The News of the Abdication of the King (2:32), 6. Acquaintance at the Ball (Waltz) (5:56), 7. Meeting in the Hospital (2:03), 8. Feeling (3:53), 9. Rendezvous by Candlelight (2:58), 10. Rescue (1:37), 11. Don’t Leave Me (2:28), 12. Icy Traverse (3:03), 13. Station Goodbye (2:10), 14. Ambush (3:14), 15. Unsent Letter (3:11), 16. The Paris Meeting (3:30), 17. The Future Is Already at Hand (6:16), 18. Romance (Final Credits) (performed by Dima Bilan) (4:29). Эдуард Артемьев/Creative Media, 55 minutes 25 seconds.
THE HISTORY OF LOVE [L’HISTOIRE DE L’AMOUR] – Armand Amar
The History of Love is a romantic drama film from Romanian director Radu Mihăileanu, based on the 2005 novel of the same name by Nicole Krauss. The film stars Derek Jacobi, Sophie Nélisse, Gemma Arterton, and Elliott Gould, and tells the story of a long-lost book that mysteriously reappears and connects an old man searching for his son with a girl seeking a cure for her mother’s loneliness. Spanning time from war-torn eastern Europe to contemporary America, the film is an exploration of the nature of love, and how it can cross generations, affecting profoundly those who truly find it. The score for The History of Love is by the Israeli-born French composer Armand Amar, whose understanding of world music and unique ethnic instruments gave him insight to write excellent scores for documentaries such as Le Premier Cri, Home, and Human, as well as more dramatic works like Ao, Le Dernier Néandertal and Belle & Sebastien: L’Aventure Continue.
For The History of Love, Amar drew from the ethnic traditions of traditional Jewish music, both in terms of style and instrumentation, and combined it with the broad sounds of a contemporary western orchestra, illustrating the idea of a culture clash: the east versus the west, Judaism versus Christianity, old versus new. Several cues make use of traditionally reedy klezmer clarinets and Yiddish vocals, most notably in the haunting “My Dear Shtetel” and its recapitulation, the dance-like “The History of Love,” and the moving “Burial,” each of which have a sense of nostalgia, of yearning for a time and a place and a life long gone.
For the more contemporary scenes set in modern day America, Amar’s music has a western sensibility of drama and quiet romance. Amar modeled his violin writing after the style of the renowned Russian-Jewish Soviet classical violinist David Oistrakh, but then often intentionally creates what he calls a ‘conflicting dialogue,’ often within the same piece. “America,” for example, offsets the Yiddish vocals with moody, but recognizably symphonic strings, before handing off to lyrical pianos supported by clarinets. “Leaving Home” recaptures the elongated, almost slurred performance technique for which Oistrakh was famous, while the first half of “The Story of the Book” blends rhapsodic piano writing and elegant, refined violin lines with more subtle allusions to the klezmer clarinets.
Several action cues – notably “The Flood,” “The Book,” “The Death of Alma,” and the second half of “The Story of the Book” – are surprisingly aggressive, with especially poignant violin solos sitting on top of the vivid and thrusting ostinatos underneath, augmented by just the merest hint of brass. Amar even gives his two assistants, Anne-Sophie Vesnaeyen and Hugo Gonzalez-Pioli, their moment in the sun with two cues of their own – the gentle, piano led “Moonlight Embrace” by Vesnaeyen, and the bouncy, upbeat “The Encounter” by Gonzalez are both excellent.
Unfortunately there is no physical CD of the soundtrack for The History of Love, but it is easily downloadable from most online retailers. With this score, Armand Amar continues to impress, and further cements his reputation as one of Europe’s most accomplished practitioners at blending authentic traditional ethnic music with rich contemporary orchestras; anyone whose musical tastes extend into the world of historical Jewish music will enjoy Amar’s highly effective spin on the genre.
Track Listing: 1. Once Upon a Time (spoken by Derek Jacobi) (0:32), 2. My Dear Shtetel I (4:11), 3. The History of Love (2:13), 4. The Flood (3:05), 5. Burial (3:20), 6. America! (2:58), 7. The Book (1:26), 8. Moonlight Embrace (written by Anne-Sophie Vesnaeyen) (1:28), 9. Leaving Home (2:15), 10. The Death of Alma (2:27), 11. Picture from the Past (1:52), 12. The Story of the Book (5:54), 13. Leo and Isaac (4:18), 14. The Encounter (written by Hugo Gonzalez-Pioli (3:01), 15. My Dear Shtetel II (4:14). Idol Records, 43 minutes 15 seconds.
JESTEM MORDERCĄ – Bartosz Chajdecki
Jestem Mordercą is a murder-mystery psychological thriller directed by Maciej Pieprzyca, and was one of the biggest domestic successes at the Polish box office in 2016. The film is inspired by real events which took place in the city of Katowice in the 1970s, and follows a young policeman who, after the failure of a previous investigation in Warsaw, is sent to rural Silesia to lead the investigation into a possible serial killer. The film stars Mirosław Haniszewski, and has a very unusual and creative score by composer Bartosz Chajdecki, who adds another string to his ever-expanding bow of genres and styles.
Chajdecki’s music is an intentionally harsh-sounding collision of cool synths, electric guitars, pianos, and dream-like string writing, augmented by some very aggressive and abrasive saxophone-led jazz. The music in cues like “Second Time in Prison,” “First Corpse,” “Second Corpse,” “Wanna Sax,” “Second Attempt,” and many others, is a whole new sound for Chajdecki; for comparison, one might think of Ornette Coleman’s contributions to Howard Shore’s score for Naked Lunch, or the music Elliot Goldenthal filtered through his ‘pickled heads’ persona on scores like Titus or The Butcher Boy. Szymon Nidzworski’s saxophone wails, snarls, scrapes, grinds, and will absolutely drive some people nuts, but it’s very creative. The intention, I’m sure, is to create a haunted, aggressive, in-your-face vibe, while simultaneously evoking something of a feel of Poland in the 1970s, and from that point of view it works perfectly.
Further cues like “Son’s Room/Father’s Fears,” “Daughter Meets a Father,” and “Need to Kill Them to Protect Them” employ ambient industrial sound design elements enlivened by string harmonics and occasional soothing piano chords, while elsewhere the familiar combination of percussion, guitar, bass guitar, and trumpet allow tracks like “Picnic,” Unsuccessful Man Hunt,” “Cutting Hair,” “Drunk Ride,” and the melancholy “Dirty Subterfuge” to still be jazzy and experimental, but feel more smooth and less harsh. The 5-minute end title piece, “Final Steps,” is one of the few cues that allows Chajdecki room to breathe and expand on his core ideas, moving from piano chords and warm synth tones at the opening, to something approaching a rock instrumental at the end.
Jestem Mordercą is so unlike anything Bartosz Chajdecki has ever written, it may come as something of a surprise to anyone hearing it for the first time. I have to admit that I don’t particularly enjoy listening to this score, purely because wild and experimental jazz has never truly connected with my personal taste; having said that, one cannot overlook the skill that goes into creating something like this, nor can one question the authenticity of the sound or the level of technical excellence that Nidzworski brings to his iconic performance.
Unfortunately the score for Jestem Mordercą is not available for commercial purchase at this time – just a promo provided by Chajdecki for promotional and award consideration. I should also mention that the promo release of the score features several so-called ‘interrupted’ cuts which mirror the film’s music editing and stop mid-performance, which may exasperate some listeners despite them accurately reflecting their in-context application. Having said that, anyone who gets a chance to hear this score, and who has a high tolerance for ‘squeaky jazz’, may find themselves intrigued to see what this is all about. If nothing else, it enhances Chajdecki’s standing as a composer with the capacity to turn his hand to any genre he chooses.
Track Listing: 1. The Death Mask (1:33), 2. Second Time in Prison-Interrupted (0:59), 3. First Corpse (0:38), 4. Son’s Room/Father’s Fears (1:07), 5. Picnic-Interrupted (0:48), 6. Second Corpse (0:37), 7. Unsuccessful Man Hunt (0:34), 8. Wanna Sax (1:22), 9. Second Attempt (0:42), 10. Suspicions (0:46), 11. Cutting Hair-Interrupted (0:47), 12. Prison Cell Surveillance-Interrupted (0:49), 13. Second Time Breaks the Charm (0:55), 14. Daughter Meets a Father (1:05), 15. Breaking Rules (0:25), 16. Why Did He Do This? (1:19), 17. Second Time in Prison (0:59), 18. Confession-Interrupted (0:53), 19. Need to Kill Them to Protect Them (1:23), 20. Burned Corpses (0:54), 21. Victims (1:12), 22. Typing the Killer (0:38), 23. Drunk Ride (0:36), 24. On the Floor (0:38), 25. Returning to Son’s Room (1:27), 26. Daughter’s Confession-Interrupted (1:13), 27. Spying on the Judge (0:47), 28. Dirty Subterfuge (2:10), 29. I Killed a Man (1:02), 30. I Killed a Man Again (1:13), 31. Final Steps/End Titles (4:40). Promo, 34 minutes 27 seconds.
PANFILOV’S 28 MEN [DVADTSAT VOSEM PANFILOVTSEV] – Mikhail Kostylev
The Russian action film 28 Панфиловцев – translated as Dvadtsat Vosem Panfilovtsev, or Panfilov’s 28 Men – is a loose adaptation of a real event which took place during World War II, when twenty-eight brave and heroic soldiers from the Red Army’s 316th Rifle Division, under the command of General Ivan Panfilov, successfully stopped a column of fifty-four German Panzer tanks from advancing on Moscow, despite sub-standard equipment and terribly harsh conditions. The men, all of whom were eventually killed in action, are commonly referred to simply as Panfilov’s Men, and were national heroes in the Soviet Union after the end of the hostilities. The film is directed by Kim Druzhinin and Andrey Shalop, and has a score by composer Mikhail Kostylev, an apparent video game specialist about whom I know precisely nothing, and who appears to be making his cinematic debut here.
For all intents and purposes, Kostylev’s score is a western action score, albeit one which regularly draws from traditional Russian folk traditions to capture the ethnic heritage and nationalistic pride shown by the 28 men in question. A noble string lament anchors the opening “Prologue,” before segueing into the pretty and emotional “Whether Legend or Myth,” which combines a pair of tinkling sampled balalaikas with a series of deep, sonorous cello and double bass chords and soaring violin figures that give the men and their story weight and gravitas.
Later, “Nazi Hydra” uses brutal brass-and-percussion clusters and satanic throat singing to characterize the evil fascist enemies of Mother Russia; “Homeland” features an angelic female soprano vocalist and a stirring, emotional violin solo to lament the tragic deaths of so many young men in defense of their country; and “Eternal Flame” gives its noble trumpet solo a contemporary edge through the use of electric guitars, a soaring choir, and a rock music attitude; while the conclusive “Winter Waltz” offers an elegant, playful meditation on Russian folk music with some especially sprightly woodwind writing.
However, the centerpiece of the score is the epic 15-minute action extravaganza “Stand Firm,” which has several wonderfully nostalgic throwbacks to the 1990s action music of Hans Zimmer. The track runs the gamut of styles and instrumental choices, from forthright militaristic percussion licks, energetic bass and cello rhythms, and Crimson Tide-style male voice choirs, to a wide array of electronic sampled beats and growling textures, all the while developing a heroic brass anthem that gradually grows more and more impressive and vibrant over the duration. Although some of the textures are clearly samples rather than live instruments, it’s really quite outstanding in the way it maintains the interest without losing steam or becoming repetitive. The wonderful sequence that begins at 11:03 is almost James Horner-esque in its anvil-enhanced, fanfare-flourishing intensity.
Overall, this is a very impressive effort, and a very gratifying discovery for me personally; one of my favorite things in film music is hearing the music of a composer previously unknown to me for the first time, especially if the score is written for a film I’ve never heard of from a country which doesn’t get much film music attention, and it turns out to be this good. Although some may find the over-reliance on a sampled orchestra a little distracting, and while others may find Kostylev’s obvious affection for 1990s Zimmer a little cliché, I personally found the depth and compositional excellence of Kostylev’s music, considering his limited resources, to be both striking and enjoyable throughout. There is no physical soundtrack CD, but the score is available online as a digital download.
Track Listing: 1. Prologue/Пролог (0:54), 2. Whether Legend or Myth/То Ли Легенда То Ли Миф (8:29), 3. Stand Firm/Стоять Намертво (15:02), 4. Nazi Hydra/Фашистская Гидра (6:02), 5. Homeland/Родина (2:51), 6. Eternal Flame/Вечный Огонь (2:34), 7. Winter Waltz/Зимний Вальс (3:23). Gaijin Entertainment, 39 minutes 18 seconds.
PROSTA HISTORIA O MORDERSTWIE – Bartosz Chajdecki
Prosta Historia O Morderstwie is a crime thriller directed by Arkadiusz Jakubik, which follows the investigation by Polish police officers into the murder of one of their colleagues. As they delve deeper into the case they find themselves getting more and more involved in the world of Polish organized crime, and start to think that the murderer might be the victim’s son, who had become involved with criminal gangs. The score for the film is by Polish composer Bartosz Chajdecki, who by now has surely cemented his position as the most exciting young musician working in Polish cinema.
Unlike his other murder-thriller score from 2016, Jestem Mordercą, Prosta Historia O Morderstwie is much more classically inclined, combining beautiful, almost Philip Glass-style piano writing with more aggressive electronica that comes across as a blending of 1980s synth writing, dance-like pulses, and harshly energetic sound design. The piano writing is especially noteworthy, especially when Chajdecki adds in feather-light pizzicato effects; cues like the opening “The Beginning of the Story,” the pretty and sunny “Picnic/Memories,” the passionate “New Home,” the Mike Oldfield-esque “What is the Story?,” the hypnotic “Yet Another Secret,” and the more anxious-sounding “There is Always Someone Behind the Murder” all have that effortless, classical sheen, delicate fingers moving over the keyboard with fluidity and grace.
On the other hand, cues like “Distress Call,” “Secret,” “Secrets Again,” the migraine-inducing “Police Raid,” and “Strange Misconceptions” are rapid, pulsating, and occasionally quite harshly dissonant; the electronics will appeal to those who enjoyed 80s thriller synth scores, and are interested to discover what a contemporary hybrid of that approach might sound like, but some of the textures Chajdecki employs can be ear-splittingly unforgiving and aggressive, and may disturb the unwary to such an extent that they may be tempted to reach for the stop button.
But don’t be too hasty; these moments of guttural ferociousness are counterbalanced by smoother, more ambient electronic textures in cues like “Father’s Garage,” “Smugglers,” the energetic “Smugglers Run,” and the flashy, exciting “It Is Not Yet Finished,” some of which have a comparable sound to the music people like Cliff Martinez is writing these days, and all of which are very impressive. Similarly, cues like “Very Close But So Distant,” “Trying So Hard,” and “Mother and Father” have a dream-like, watery, evocative appeal that is tantalizing, and reminds me occasionally of the music composer Ólafur Arnalds wrote for the British crime thriller TV series Broadchurch.
Unfortunately, like most of Chajdecki’s other scores this year, the score for Prosta Historia O Morderstwie is not available for commercial purchase at this time – just a promo provided by Chajdecki for promotional and award consideration purposes. In an ideal world, Chajdecki would have all the best parts from these scores on a personal website, where his many fans across the world can listen and appreciate what a wonderfully talented composer he is. Hopefully this is something that will happen in 2017 – in the meantime, you’ll either have to watch the film, or just take my word for it.
Track Listing; 1. Sequence 1 – The Beginning of the Story [Piano Solo] (1:55), 2. Distress Call (2:42), 3. Picnic/Memories (1:36), 4. New Home (1:40), 5. Father’s Garage (1:13), 6. Sequence 3 – What is the Story? [Piano Solo] (1:56), 7. Secret (0:59), 8. Sequence 4 – Yet Another Secret [Piano Solo] (2:21), 9. Sequence 4 – Yet Another Secret [Piano and Synths] (2:32), 10. Smugglers (0:56), 11. Secrets Again (0:55), 12. Very Close But So Distant (1:27), 13. Smugglers Run (1:33), 14. Police Raid (2:22), 15. Love in the Back Seat (1:01), 16. Sequence 5 – There is Always Someone Behind the Murder [Piano Solo] (2:16), 17. Trying So Hard (1:42), 18. Strange Misconceptions (1:41), 19. Revealing a Secret (1:13), 20. Mother and Father (1:29), 21. Sequence 1 – The End of the Story [Piano and Synths] (1:53), 22. Sequence 5 – It Is Not Yet Finished [Synths] (2:34), 23. Revealing the Truth (3:28), 24. Afraid to Go Home (1:12), 25. Going Home (1:44), 26. Happy Ending – Really! (1:08), 27. Sequence 3 – Where are the End Titles? [Synths] (2:01). Promo, 47 minutes 43 seconds.
THESE DAUGHTERS OF MINE [MOJE CÓRKI KROWY] – Bartosz Chajdecki
These Daughers of Mine is a family drama film directed by Kinga Dębska, about a Polish family which begins to disintegrate when the family’s much-loved mother is diagnosed with a terminal illness. The film, which starred Agata Kulesza and Gabriela Muskala, was a major success at the box office in Poland in 2016, and won the Polish Academy Award for Best Screenplay for its writer. In addition, the film has an excellent score by the popular and exceptionally busy Polish composer Bartosz Chajdecki, who off the back of his international success with the TV series Czas Honoru, is now at the forefront of his country’s domestic film scoring.
His music for These Daughters of Mine, much like the film itself, is about conflict and struggle, as the two sisters at the center of the family drama have to put aside years of estrangement and disagreement for the benefit of their dying mother and soon-to-be-widowed father. As such, Chajdecki is constantly pitting different rhythmic ideas and instrumental combinations against each other: agitated strings and pianos in the opening “Wybudzenie Matki,” and with the further addition of electric guitars against the undulating piano undercurrent in “Jedną Minutę Przed,” “Pięć Minut Przed,” “Sześć Minut Przed,” and “Końcówka,” among others.
The repeated clusters of sound have a minimalist edge, akin to something Philip Glass or Michael Nyman might write for a film like this, with a see-sawing quality that is hypnotic but also beautiful. Later, as the score reaches its climax, and the family drama comes to a head, Chajdecki allows his music to adopt a tone of soothing calmness, as if the inevitable death of the family matriarch is the catalyst to wash away out all the years of bitterness and division. “Plan Filmowy,” “Początek,” and the conclusive “Szpital,” still have the same instrumental combinations, but somehow feel lighter and happier, almost cathartic.
Unfortunately the score for These Daughters of Mine is not available for commercial purchase at this time – just a 22-minute promo provided by Chajdecki for promotional and award consideration. Fans of the composers I mentioned earlier, Glass and Nyman, or of Alexandre Desplat’s more minimalist works, will certainly find much to appreciate here, and I hope the success of the film leads to some sort of score release further down the road, even if it’s only as a digital download.
Track Listing: 1. Wybudzenie Matki (0:47), 2. Jedną Minutę Przed (2:29), 3. Dwie Minuty Przed (1:17), 4. Pięć Minut Przed (1:46), 5. Sześć Minut Przed (2:29), 6. Balkon (1:25), 7. Końcówka (3:00), 8. Masaż (0:40), 9. Ojciec (2:35), 10. Plan Filmowy (1:28), 11. Początek (1:26), 12. Siłownia (0:46), 13. Szpital (2:06). Promo, 22 minutes 14 seconds.