Home > Reviews > THE WHITE CROW – Ilan Eshkeri

THE WHITE CROW – Ilan Eshkeri

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The White Crow is the third film directed by the great British actor Ralph Fiennes, following on from 2011’s Coriolanus, and 2013’s The Invisible Woman. It’s also the latest in a series of films in which Fiennes has explored his long-standing fascination with the classical heritage of Russia, after titles such as Onegin in 1999, The White Countess in 2005, and A Month in the Country in 2014. The White Crow is a more contemporary story about the Russian ballet, specifically the life of Rudolf Nureyev, who is generally regarded to be the greatest male ballet dancer of his generation. Written by David Hare, and based on the book ‘Nureyev: The Life’ by Julie Kavanagh, it stars Oleg Ivenko in the title role, and chronicles Nureyev’s life growing up and dancing in the Soviet Union for the Kirov Ballet, and the events that led to his defection to the West in 1961. Fiennes himself plays Nureyev’s dance teacher in Moscow, Alexander Pushkin, while Adèle Exarchopoulos and Chulpan Khamatova appear in supporting roles.

All of Fiennes’s films as director have been scored by Ilan Eshkeri, and The White Crow is no exception. Eshkeri has quietly been writing a ton of great music for more than 15 years now, ever since the death of his mentor Michael Kamen in 2003. His list of credits is enviable, and encompasses every conceivable genre, from comedy (Austenland, Johnny English Reborn) to animation (Shaun the Sheep, Justin and the Knights of Valour) to fantasy (Stardust), and everything in between, but in my opinion he is at his best when he writes strong, old fashioned, dramatic orchestral music. The Young Victoria was one of the best scores of 2009, Swallows & Amazons was one of the best scores of 2016, and now he can add The White Crow to his list of outstanding accomplishments.

Considering how much legendary ballet music would need to appear in the film, Eshkeri must have been somewhat daunted when tasked with writing an original score that would not sound out of place alongside some of the greatest Tchaikovsky pieces of all time. However, rather than try to out-score one of the world’s most revered classical composers, Eshkeri instead tried to concentrate on scoring Nureyev’s journey – literally – from the East to the West. The rather brief album from Deutsche Grammophon contains nine Eshkeri cues, totaling just under 25 minutes of music, the first of which are the mysterious and atmospheric string chords of the “Trans-Siberian Express,” on which Nureyev was born in 1938. The subsequent “Paris” is a captivating flurry of strings and pianos, in which violinist Lisa Batiashvili’s gorgeous tones sit on top of an urgent, energetic rhythmic undercurrent which has intentional references to contemporary minimalists like Steve Reich; this is intended to represent the excitement Nureyev felt at experiencing western culture for the first time.

The more elegant and refined tones of “La Sainte-Chapelle” feature gorgeous writing for cello and woodwinds for another of Nureyev’s loves – Sainte-Chapelle, the royal chapel within the medieval Palais de la Cité in Paris – and speak of the sense of longing that Nureyev felt while experiencing its religious and architectural grandeur. “Ufa” is the city in the remote republic of Bashkortostan where Nureyev grew up, and again Batiashvili’s violin performance anchors the cue, adding a sense of oppressiveness to the young dancer’s life there. “Leningrad” revisits the Russian-style melody heard in “La Sainte-Chapelle” with an equal amount of passion, further building on Nureyev’s appreciation for art and beauty.

“Nureyev” is the dancer’s personal theme, a sublime duet between Batiashvili’s violin and Dudana Mazmanishvili’s ravishing piano, which often darts off into a series of impressionistic performance textures and classical flourishes that are just magnificent. “Le Bourget” underscores the scene at the eponymous airport in Paris where Nureyev makes the momentous decision to defect. This piece of light action-thriller score music pits repeated string figures against whining trumpet chords which become more agitated and frenetic as they develop; subtle hints of Nureyev’s personal theme creep out from deep within the piece, anchoring him as the focus of the cue, and it all becomes quite hair-raising by the end, as Nureyev makes his daring bid for freedom from crushing Soviet oppression.

The album also includes five sumptuous pieces of ballet music: one from Alexander Krein’s 1939 work “Laurencia,” two from Ludwig Minkus’s opulent 1877 piece “La Bayadère,” and two from the legendary Swan Lake by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. There is also a solo piano performance of traditional Bashkirian folk music performed by Danny Driver. Each of the performances is a new recording arranged by Eshkeri with Teese Gohl and Vladimir Podgoretsky especially for the film, with the Krein and Tchaikovsky excerpts being performed in Serbia by the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra. They are all quite superb.

The conclusive “The White Crow” is a skillful blending of music by both Eshkeri and Tchaikovsky, arranged by Jessica Dannheisser, which moves seamlessly from one to the other as if the are one. The elegant string writing, the gorgeous classical sound, and the clean and effortless melodies are all splendid; Batiashvili makes her instrument sing, and when the whole thing emerges into a sumptuous sweep of Tchaikovskian grandeur at the 3:26 mark, the effect is wonderful.

Despite its brevity, The White Crow is a quite outstanding piece of music. The way that Ilan Eshkeri manages to re-imagine some of the world’s great ballet music, and capture its essence in an original dramatic score about one of its most revered interpreters, is really excellent, and the way those ideas are brought to life by the featured performances of Batiashvili and Mazmanishvili is just sublime. Anyone whose musical tastes run towards the overtly classical will find themselves enraptured by the luxurious sound of this score; as I am one of those people, I have had this on repeat for days. It’s one of the most unexpected under-the-radar gems of 2019 so far.

Buy the White Crow soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Trans-Siberian Express (0:53)
  • Paris (2:34)
  • Laurencia – Pas de Six: Wedding Dance (written by Alexander Krein) (1:42)
  • La Sainte-Chapelle (2:16)
  • Swan Lake, Op. 20 – Pas de Trois: Andante Sostenuto (written by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky) (2:07)
  • Ufa (0:52)
  • La Bayadère – Third Shade Variation (written by Ludwig Minkus) (1:30)
  • Leningrad (1:22)
  • Nureyev (4:21)
  • La Bayadère – Solor Variation (written by Ludwig Minkus) (1:03)
  • The Prodigal Son (0:54)
  • Swan Lake, Op. 20 – Pas de Deux: Coda (written by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky) (1:41)
  • Le Bourget (6:22)
  • Bashkirian Folk Dance (traditional, performed by Danny Driver) (1:33)
  • The White Crow (written by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky) (4:50)

Running Time: 34 minutes 06 seconds

Deutsche Grammophon 0289-483-5865-6 (2019)

Music composed by Ilan Eshkeri. Conducted by Andy Brown. Performed by the London Metropolitan Orchestra. Orchestrations by Jessica Dannheisser. Featured musical soloists Lisa Batiashvili and Dudana Mazmanishvili. Recorded and mixed by Stephen McLaughlin. Edited by Poppy Kavanagh. Album produced by Ilan Eshkeri and Stephen McLaughlin.

  1. May 25, 2019 at 7:27 am

    The music for the “end credits” of the movie White Crow is exquisite. The last track you speak of “White Crow” by Tchaikovsky doesn’t seem to be the actual “end credits” music. Am I mistaken that the “end credits” music is not on the sound track? I really would like to know. If you can give me an answer, I would be most appreciative. Thank you.

    • Betty
      January 25, 2021 at 12:51 pm

      Did you ever find out the answer to this question?

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