Home > Reviews > Under-the-Radar Round Up 2019, Part I

Under-the-Radar Round Up 2019, Part I

As I have done for the past several years, I am pleased to present the first installment in my ongoing series of articles looking at the best “under the radar” scores from around the world. Rather than grouping the scores on a geographical basis, this year I decided to again simply present the scores in a random order, and so this first batch includes reviews of five disparate scores from the first four months of the year – including a French literary period drama, a French children’s animated film about insects, a Japanese murder-mystery thriller, a Swedish romantic drama, and a historical biopic from Switzerland!

EDMOND – Romain Trouillet

Edmond is a French historical comedy-drama film about the life of playwright Edmond Rostand, directed by Alexis Michalik, based on his own stage work. It stars Thomas Solivérès in the title role, and follows the exploits of the author around belle epoque Paris circa 1897 as he begins work on what would eventually become his most famous story – that of the great poetic lover Cyrano de Bergerac. The film co-stars Olivier Gourmet as his benefactor Constant Coquelin, and Mathilde Seigner as his wife Maria, and has a lovely score by composer Romain Trouillet.

The score is really excellent, orchestral and thematic, with some gorgeously expressive passages for strings, darting woodwinds, and a constant rolling piano which underpins most of the score. After the conclusion of the sparkling “Prologue,” the theme for “Edmond Rostand” is whimsical and magical, with fluttering flutes dancing on top of the lush string figures and piano lines; it’s quite wonderful, a tribute to his romantic soul and the classical ode to love he created. Edmond’s theme returns in extended fashion later in “La Pièce va se Faire,” where it is enlivened by a stunning violin solo, and then again in the more downbeat and introspective “Rosemonde et les Lettres,” where thoughtful pianos take center stage.

There is a sense of gentle comedy that runs through much of the score too, including prancing strings and pizzicato textures, hooting clarinets and oboes, playful violins, with cues like “Descriptif,” “La Brasserie Honoré,” and “Coq Embobine les Deux Corses” being superb examples of this style. There is a touch of James Newton Howard’s light and lively comedy scores in some of this writing – I’m thinking scores like Dave or My Best Friend’s Wedding – which is welcome indeed. That style of writing just isn’t prevalent in mainstream movies these days, meaning we have to go to France for it.

“French Cancan” has a flash of the Moulin Rouge. “Le Balcon” is a beautiful romance theme for pianos, which is reprised for swooning strings in “L’Amour Impossible”. “En Route Pour Issoudun” is more energetic and fluid, conveying speed and movement. “Nini Peau d’Chien” is full of accordions and an upright piano, and is more stereotypically French than anything else in the score. “Dio Vi Salvi Regina,” as one might expect, has more than a hint of liturgical church music in its string phrasing. “Le Boléro” is a wonderful re-imagining of Maurice Ravel’s most famous piece.

By the time the score gets to “La Première” the music is full of anticipation, while the finale offers several moments of note, including some slightly bittersweet cello writing in the lovely “Le Crépuscule,” a celebratory and warm-hearted statement of Edmond’s theme in “Mon Panache,” and a nice summation of the most important thematic ideas in the conclusive “Derrière le Rideau”.

Anyone who enjoys the sprightly and emotionally direct historical scores of composers like George Fenton and Patrick Doyle will get a great deal of satisfaction from Edmond. It has a wonderful period sound, strong thematic performances, appropriate reflections of French popular and classical music from the era, and has an overall feeling of positivity, playfulness, and whimsical charm, tempered by some more serious moments of genuine romance.

Track Listing: 1. Prologue (0:54), 2. Edmond Rostand (2:27), 3. Descriptif (1:28), 4. La Brasserie Honoré (1:35), 5. French Cancan (1:53), 6. Rue de Montpensier (0:53), 7. Le Balcon (1:01), 8. Coq Embobine les Deux Corses (1:06), 9. J’Ai Rencontré l’Inspiration (1:14), 10. Espièglerie (0:43), 11. La Pièce va se Faire (3:59), 12. En Route Pour Issoudun (1:14), 13. Rosemonde et les Lettres (1:49), 14. Nini Peau d’Chien (2:48), 15. Acte Cinq (1:17), 16. L’Amour Impossible (2:19), 17. Dio Vi Salvi Regina (0:47), 18. Le Boléro (8:11), 19. La Première (3:03), 20. L’Arbre (0:47), 21. Le Crépuscule (2:40), 22. Mon Panache (1:19), 23. Derrière le Rideau (3:40). Gaumont, 47 minutes 07 seconds.

 

MINISCULE: LES MANDIBULES DU BOUT DU MONDE – Mathieu Lamboley

Miniscule: Les Mandibules du Bout du Monde (titled ‘Mandibles From Far Away’ in English) is a children’s animated film from France, written and directed by Thomas Szabo and Hélène Giraud. It follows the adventures of little ladybird living in a quiet country village in France who accidentally gets trapped in a cardboard box, which is then shipped to the Caribbean. Desperate to find their child and bring him home, the little bug’s parents set off for the island of Guadeloupe, and adventures ensue. The film is a sequel to the 2013 film Minuscule: Valley of the Lost Ants, which was itself a big-screen spin-off from a series of whimsical animated shorts, and has a wonderful score by Mathieu Lamboley.

Miniscule: Les Mandibules du Bout du Monde is my first experience of Mathieu Lamboley’s music, but on this evidence it won’t be my last, because it’s a very impressive piece of work. It’s a stirring and lavish orchestral score performed by the Orchestre National d’Île-de-France and the Children’s Choir of Francis Bardot; the press release for the soundtrack says Lamboley’s music is an exciting and lyrical combination of Ravel, Prokofiev, John Williams, and Michael Giacchino, which is certainly a high bar to reach. It’s clearly not quite that good – what could be? – but it certainly has its moments of beauty, grace, and orchestral drama. Lamboley’s score has to do all the film’s heavy lifting, as there is virtually no spoken dialogue, and as such it is manipulative is to the full, and never shies away from taking the listener by the hand and guiding them in the right emotional direction.

The one thing the score lacks is a strong recurring main theme following the little ladybirds on their quest to save their son, but Lamboley’s textures and arrangements more than make up for it. Cues like the opening “Solstice d’Hiver” and the conclusive “Les Adieux” have a sense of magic and wonderment to them, allowing the viewer to envelop themselves in a rich world teeming with life just beyond our view. “L’Habanera” is a surprisingly moving piece for a hummed chorus and delicate orchestral lines underpinned with subtly exotic percussion and woodwinds. “Commando Mandibule” is a fun, prancing march with a hint of Harry Potter to its arrangements.

Later, “Mystères de la Jungle” brings out the exotic percussion alongside strings filled with trepidation. “Mantula Persecución” features mambo rhythms and a guest spot for a theremin, in a sort-of throwback combination of Danny Elfman’s Flubber and Mars Attacks. “Chenilles Urticantes” and “Plage Inderdite” combine into what is probably the dramatic highlight of the score, a mass of searching strings and ominous voices accompanied by a real sense of danger, that eventually gives way to something more apocalyptic, featuring church organs and a massed choir. The duet for piano and cello in “La Petite Coccinelle” is just gorgeous.

The action music, which comes via cues such as “Air Coconut Chase,” “Carton Rouge,” “Duel des Mouches,” “Il Faut Sauver le Soldat Mandibule,” and “Bulldozer,” is lively and energetic, making use of the full orchestra in a series of pieces that emphasize speed, movement, and dense orchestration over bombastic rhythms. “L’Arachnide Taquine” is a little more dissonant, briefly veering off into horror music territory before changing tack entirely in its second half. One specific thing I noticed and liked was Lamboley’s use of doubled flutes in “Carton Rouge,” which came across as being especially interesting, and occasionally evoked the orchestration style of Alex North. Perhaps the score’s only let down is its occasional tendency to veer off into mickey-mousing – parts of the opening track, as well as several later pieces seem to equate comedy with a lack of focus – but this is a small and easily-ignored issue for what is otherwise a quite outstanding overall piece of music.

Fans who enjoy fun, varied, and optimistic animation scores could do much worse than Miniscule: Les Mandibules du Bout du Monde, which is one of the best scores of its type I have heard in quite some time. What it lacks in recurring thematic content it more than makes up for in complicated, invigorating, fascinating orchestration and instrumental dexterity. The score is available both on CD and as a digital download from the French film music label Music Box Records.

Track Listing: 1. Solstice d’Hiver (3:13), 2. L’Habanera (3:54), 3. Air Coconut Chase (2:36), 4. Le Nid (1:15), 5. Commando Mandibule (4:28), 6. Carton Rouge (2:16), 7. Duel des Mouches (1:22), 8. Contre la Montre (2:02), 9. Bzzzness Class (1:52), 10. Hissez la Misaine ! (2:10), 11. Il Faut Sauver le Soldat Mandibule (1:04), 12. Cliffhanger (1:54), 13. Mystères de la Jungle (2:41), 14. Mantula Persecución (3:03), 15. Bulldozer (1:06), 16. Révélation (1:23), 17. Chenilles Urticantes (6:10), 18. Plage Interdite (1:27), 19. L’Arachnide Taquine (4:40), 20. La Petite Coccinelle (2:14), 21. Le Rite (1:52), 22. Les Adieux (6:42). Music Box Records MBR-154, 59 minutes 19 seconds.

 

MASQUERADE HOTEL – Naoki Sato

Masquerade Hotel is a Japanese murder-mystery thriller in the style of Agatha Christie, directed by Masayuki Suzuki, based on the novel by Keigo Higashino. The film stars Takuya Kimura as Nitta, the leader of a team of homicide detectives trying to catch a serial killer who leaves number-based clues by the bodies of the victims. Having determined that a lavish Tokyo hotel, the Koruteshia, is the likely location of the next murder, Nitta goes undercover, posing as a hotel employee as he attempts to solve the case. While at the hotel, he is trained to work the front desk by Naomi (Masami Nagasawa), a fellow employee to whom there is more than meets the eye.

The score for Masquerade Hotel is by the great Naoki Sato, whose work never fails to impress. It’s quite staggering to me just how much utterly astonishing music Sato has written over the years – bold, theme-filled, emotional, fully-orchestral masterpieces – but how little of it is known, or even acknowledged, outside Japan. He would be in the running for Score of the Year every year amongst mainstream film score fans if he was writing for American movies, but alas his career is virtually ignored by those who concentrate only on mainstream Hollywood fare.

The score opens and closes with an impossibly opulent and lavish waltz for the full orchestra, a cavalcade of swirling strings, dancing and swooning brasses, rolling cymbals, and sprightly xylophone runs, a perfect depiction of the classical setting and the lavish surroundings of the hotel itself. The other recurring element of the score is a simply breathtaking choral motif for massed voices and tolling bells which really comes to dominate the score during its second half. Cues like “Kyouhan Sha,” the tempestuous “Aribai,” the astonishing “X4,” and “Itsutsu No Heya” all explode into this near-religious choral majesty that is as brilliant as it is unexpected; at times, Sato adds a layer of almost subliminal synths that make the chorale sound like a close cousin of Hans Zimmer’s ‘Chevaliers de Sangreal’ from The Da Vinci Code, overflowing with sacred power.

The rest of the score is no less wonderful, with each subsequent cue offering a showcase for Sato’s vast talent. “Katagiri Youko” is full of mystery, chilly strings and harp textures underscoring the central crimes with a combination of elegance and suspicion. “Yokoku” is a suspense piece that feels more like a James Bond score than anything in Naoki Sato’s past. “Checkout” is an unexpectedly beautiful piece of fully orchestral romance with an especially divine oboe solo and a solo vocalist that would not sound out of place in a Joe Hisaishi score. The finale of “Ichiryuu No Hotel Man” simply soars. “Sin Jijitsu” sounds like Rimsky-Korsakov crossed with Mike Oldfield. “Kanpeki Nak Keikaku” sounds like Sato’s take on Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata,’ peaceful and introspective.

However, by far my favorite moments are the action cues, wherein Sato just lets his orchestra fly. “Renzoku Satsujin Jiken” is a wonderful action piece, with turbulent strings and brasses underpinned by heavy percussion, but later overlaid with an elegant dance for strings and flutes that gives it a unique, classical feel. “508 Goushitsu” is an action ballet between the strings and brasses, underpinned with a tremendous snare drum tattoo and rampaging pianos, before exploding into something approaching James Newton Howard-style orchestral savagery during its second half (it reminded me of Waterworld, of all things!)

I cannot stress enough just how terrific this score is, and just how much you are missing out if you keep overlooking Naoki Sato’s work. In just the last two or three years alone he has written half a dozen or so scores which other composers would be happy to have composed during a lifetime – Assassination Classroom: Graduation, Rudolf the Black Cat, The Never-Setting Sun, Honnouji Hotel, A Life, Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura – and Masquerade Hotel can be added to that list of standouts. The score is unfortunately not available to purchase on CD in the United States or Europe, but is available as an import from online retailers such as CD Japan, Musicjapanet, and YesAsia.

Track Listing: 1. Main Title (3:58), 2. Katagiri Youko (5:03), 3. Renzoku Satsujin Jiken (2:44), 4. Yokoku (2:18), 5. 508 Goushitsu (3:34), 6. Checkout (2:17), 7. Ichiryuu No Hotel Man (3:51), 8. Kyouhan Sha (2:41), 9. Aribai (2:48), 10. Sin Jijitsu (2:40), 11. X4 (4:55), 12. Itsutsu No Heya (3:28), 13. Kanpeki Na Keikaku (3:11), 14. End Title (3:58). Columbia Japan COCP-40607, 47 minutes 26 seconds.

 

SWOON – Nathaniel Méchaly

Swoon – known as Eld & Lågor in its native Sweden – is a romantic fantasy comedy-drama directed by Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein, starring Robert Gustafsson, Pernilla August, Albin Grenholm, and Frida Gustavsson. It’s an unusual take on the classic Romeo and Juliet story, and follows the love affair of a young man and a young woman who grow up in rival amusement parks in Stockholm in the 1940s. Despite the disapproval of their parents, who have a long and bitter rivalry, John and Ninni find themselves attracted to each other, and must overcome many different obstacles in order to be together.

The score for Swoon is by French composer Nathaniel Méchaly, who is most well known in American circles for his scores for the Liam Neeson Taken trilogy of films, and the Zoe Saldana action movie Colombiana. Anyone familiar with the style of music in those scores will absolutely not be expecting the sort of music Méchaly has written here: it’s light, playful, energetic, fully orchestral, and wholly delightful, blending together passages of gorgeous romance with some bouncy, effervescent circus music that has more than a hint of Danny Elfman about it.

The sweep of the main romance theme that emerges half way through the opening cue is spectacular, while subsequent statements and variations in the second half of “The Dream” and in later cues like “In Love,” the passionate “Gustaf’s Story and Ghost Kiss,” the tender “The Flower Bouquet,” and “Don’t Go” keep the central relationship at the core of the story. The writing for piano and harp in that latter cue is especially attractive. The circus music makes use of jaunty oompah rhythms and pretty, festive orchestrations that jump from solo trumpets to nippy strings, to tinkling metallic percussion, and has more than a hint of the big top via an homage to that familiar march by Julius Fučik that everyone knows, but no-one knows is called “Entry of the Gladiators’. Most of the opening cue, “Swoon,” adopts this style, in addition to subsequent cues like “Speaking the Same Language,” and it’s quite outstanding.

There are more Elfman influences in cues such as the waltz-like “Welcome to Gröna Lund,” and the dream-like “Ninni’s Roller Coaster,” both of which clearly had Edward Scissorhands in the temp track. The subsequent “John and Ninni’s Waltz” is just sublime, the Gallic-flavored “At the Rooftop” is charming, and the wonderful “John Can’t Wait to See Her” sparkles with breathless anticipation. There is drama, too, via the more understated and insidious chords of “A Spy at Gustaf’s Office,” the pensive first half of the aforementioned “The Dream,” the vocally-enhanced “Lennart,” and especially the bittersweet “Sad Love,” the latter of which has a gorgeous solo violin element that darts in and out of the cue, and gradually builds to a grandstand finish via the introduction of a bold brass element. There’s even a couple of action cues – “Saving Them” and the latter half of “Ninni Leaves” – which increase the percussion quotient, work in a choir, and adopt and aggressive, determined attitude.

The finale of the score is where Méchaly really increases the emotional content to the absolute maximum: the yearning, searching, desperate crescendo of “Don’t Go” leads into the epic explosion of the main romantic theme in “Love Kiss,” before a final flourish of tenderness and whimsy in “Grand Finale,” another nod to one of Danny Elfman’s recurring cue titles.

Swoon is a passionate, romantic delight that is sure to capture the hearts and minds of listeners in the mood for love. I’m always impressed when a composer like Nathaniel Méchaly, whose most popular music tends to be action-based and synth-heavy, really lets his classical flag fly with something as charming and beautiful as this. Méchaly – along with young peers like Philippe Rombi, Laurent Perez del Mar, Cyrille Aufort, and Mathieu Gonet – are really at the forefront of the current French film music renaissance, and it’s fantastic to experience. It’s available now via MovieScore Media as a digital download from most online retailers, and will be released on CD by Music Box Records later in the year.

Track Listing: 1. Swoon (3:11), 2. Welcome to Gröna Lund (1:31), 3. John and Ninni’s Waltz (1:07), 4. A Spy at Gustaf’s Office (2:22), 5. Ninni’s Roller Coaster (2:01), 6. At the Rooftop (1:25), 7. Awareness of Love (1:20), 8. The Dream (2:09), 9. In Love (1:15), 10. Gustaf’s Story and Ghost Kiss (2:45), 11. Speaking the Same Language (0:59), 12. The Flower Bouquet (1:25), 13. John Can’t Wait to See Her (0:56), 14. Sad Love (3:44), 15. Saving Them (2:00), 16. Lennart (4:14), 17. Ninni Leaves (3:55), 18. Don’t Go (2:49), 19. Love Kiss (1:29), 20. Grand Finale (2:31), 21. The Keep (written and performed by Lily Oakes) (4:24). Moviescore Media MMS-19004, 47 minutes 41 seconds.

 

ZWINGLI – Diego Baldenweg, Nora Baldenweg, and Lionel Vincent Baldenweg

Zwingli is a historical drama film from Switzerland, written by Simone Schmid and directed by Stefan Haupt. It tells the life story of Ulrich Zwingli, a religious leader in Zurich during the Reformation in the early 1500s, who followed the lead of groundbreakers like Martin Luther and John Calvin and sought to modernize the Catholic Church. After years of preaching to German-speaking congregations in their native language – which angered the Latin purists in the Vatican – and seeking to break free from the shackles of Rome, Zwingli was eventually killed in battle in 1531, during a religious war between various factions in different cantons across what is now Switzerland. The film stars Maximilian Simonischek in the title role, and was a popular success in Swiss cinemas when it opened there in January 2019.

The score for Zwingli is by a trio of musical siblings of Swiss-Australian heritage – Diego Baldenweg, Nora Baldenweg, and Lionel Vincent Baldenweg – who together write and record under the moniker ‘Great Garbo’. My first experience of their music was just last year, with the children’s fantasy score Der Kleine Hexe, and while that was good, Zwingli is something else entirely. The score is performed by the Zurich Chamber Orchestra and Choir featuring violinist Daniel Hope and vocalist Larissa Bretscher, and it’s quite superb. As one might expect, it’s steeped in the musical sound and feeling of the church, and is full of reverently beautiful instrumental and orchestral passages, as well as liturgical Latin chants and songs that perfectly depict the devout personality of a man of faith.

Daniel Hope’s violin performances anchor cues like the opening “Prologus,” “Sacra Nova,” and “Lux,” allowing them to develop and maintain a rich classical attitude; later, the florid and impressionistic scales in cues like “Tempus Fugit” and “Agitato,” are just magnificent, rooting the score in the musical traditions of the period while also being spectacularly entertaining. Similarly, Larissa Bretscher’s cut-glass vocals in cues like “Pura,” “MDXIX,” “Genesis,” and “Oratorio” are just gorgeous; sometimes they feel a little bit like medieval plainsong, especially when she combines with the more earthy tones of a male voice choir, while at other times they have the reverent attitude of high church music.

Surrounding all this, the actual underscore the Baldenwegs wrote is no less impressive. A lot of the music has a subtle sheen of electronic sound design, which is audible enough to make it sound a tiny bit contemporary, but is unobtrusive enough to remain appropriate. The main theme for Zwingli that runs through much of the score is memorable and just pious enough to be respectful, and a lot of the textures and instrumental combinations have a feeling of James Horner about them – cues like “Adiuva Nos Deus,” “Liberatio,” “Dubietas,” and the conclusive “Levitas” occasionally reminded me of the more restrained, emotional parts of scores like Braveheart, Legends of the Fall, and Glory, which is absolutely a good thing. One or two individual cues, like the more sparkling and upbeat “Verbum Viat,” or the rumbling action of “Tumultus et Tempestas,” also leave a positive impression.

In just a short couple of years, the Baldenwegs have secured a place on the list of composer(s) whose music is an immediate acquisition for me, which is no mean feat considering how crowded the film music market is these days. Zwingli is an outstanding score, an excellent combination of sparkling classical violins, choral church music, and beautiful orchestral passages that capture the essence of this revered and martyred man of the cloth. The score for Zwingli is available now as a digital download from Great Garbo Music via most online retailers, but unfortunately no plans have been announced for a physical CD release.

Track Listing: 1. Prologus (3:02), 2. Pura (2:03), 3. Adiuva Nos, Deus (5:18), 4. Tempus Fugit (2:34), 5. MDXIX (4:25), 6. Sacra Nova (2:46), 7. Mersatur (2:32), 8. Agitatio (2:55), 9. Ad Bellum Et Mortem (5:36), 10. Genesis (3:12), 11. Lux (4:09), 12. Verbum Vivat (3:58), 13. Oratio (2:35), 14. Ceremonium (2:16), 15. Epistula Ad Fratrem (1:41), 16. Tumultus Et Tempestas (1:33), 17. Liberatio (2:48), 18. Dubietas (4:34), 19. Crypta (5:20), 20. Levitas (3:21). Great Garbo Music, 66 minutes 42 seconds.

  1. May 29, 2019 at 3:09 am

    Thank you so much for these, it’s so hard to find the diamonds in the rough as the average film score becomes increasingly unmusical…

  2. Terry93D
    May 29, 2019 at 8:09 am

    I evidently need to give a listen to Swoon, Miniscule, and Masquerade Hotel.

    I recall being less impressed with Zwingli, but perhaps I need to give it another listen.

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