Home > Reviews > Under-the-Radar Round Up 2021, Part 2B

Under-the-Radar Round Up 2021, Part 2B

The new year is already half way done and, as the world of mainstream blockbuster cinema and film music continues to recover from the COVID-19 Coronavirus, we must again look to smaller international features not as reliant on massive theatrical releases to discover the best new soundtracks. As such I am very pleased to present the second installment (for this calendar year) in my ongoing series of articles looking at the best “under the radar” scores from around the world.

The five titles included here are heavily based around love and romance, and include a WWII-era drama from the Czech Republic, a Spanish period drama television series set in early 18th-century Madrid, a tragic teenage romance from the Philippines, a biopic from Colombia about a son remembering his murdered father, and another Ramadan series from Egypt, this time a family drama about parents trying to make a better life for their unborn child.

 

THE AFFAIR – Antoni Łazarkiewicz

The Affair, also known as The Glass Room, or Sklenený Pokoj in its original language, is a Czech romantic drama directed by Julius Ševčík. The film is set in Prague in the 1930s and examines the relationship of wealthy newlyweds Liesel (Hanna Alström) and Viktor (Klaes Bang), who enlist a famous architect to build a glass room onto their already lavish home. In the months leading up the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia and the beginning of World War II, cracks start to appear in their marriage. Viktor has an affair with family’s nanny, while Liesel embarks on an even more forbidden sexual affair with her female friend Hana (Carice Van Houten). As the Nazis close in, Liesel and Viktor flee to neutral Switzerland with their two children, but almost immediately Liesel realizes that her feelings for the ‘friend’ she left behind are deeper than she realized. The film was released in cinemas in the Czech Republic back in 2019, but is only now beginning to be released in territories around the world.

The score for The Affair is by the terrific young Polish composer Antoni Łazarkiewicz, who has already impressed with previous works such as 2014’s Miasto 44, 2017’s Spoor, and the TV mini-series remake of Rosemary’s Baby. In describing his score for this film, Łazarkiewicz says “the main tension is built between the timelessness of the main artifact: the house, a building with a personality of its own, and its ever changing inhabitants. The music needed a beating heart and a human soul. The first element was provided by the string orchestra, the second by the sound of solo cello, played by my friend, the virtuoso Karol Marianowski. I allowed myself to be very melodious and passionate, shattering the coldness of the Glass House.”

As such, the score is highly classical, and very beautiful, being mostly dominated by elegant, lyrical string lines overlaid with rich, full cello passages. It’s filled with rhythm, and has a sense of movement, but is also languid and effortlessly romantic. Cues like “The Architect’s Vision,” “Timelapse,” “The House Falling to Pieces,” and the intensely passionate “Reunion” are lovely examples of this writing; it doesn’t have a strong thematic base, per se, but the tone of the instruments is so luxurious, and the wash of sound is so mellifluous, that the lack of a prominent thematic backbone feels less important.

The music in “Liesel,” with its fragile violin element, is especially noteworthy. Elsewhere, in cues such as “It Knows Us, This Place” “Moving In,” and “Sunglow,” Łazarkiewicz introduces a gorgeous rolling piano motif amid the strings, giving the sound of the piece a new depth. Cues like “Betrayal” and “Hiding” are more energetic and intense, focusing on vibrant rhythms in the strings that bring a sense of urgency, while “Hana’s Departure” throbs with breathless desperation.

The score for The Affair is available as a digital download from Moviescore Media and to stream via most of the major services. Anyone who enjoys the enveloping classicism of composers like Craig Armstrong or Dario Marianelli – especially their scores for literary classics like Far from the Madding Crowd, or Pride and Prejudice – will find Łazarkiewicz’s work here to be of a similar feeling, and a similar standard.

Track Listing: 1. The Architect’s Vision (3:22), 2. It Knows Us, This Place (4:25), 3. Moving In (5:44), 4. Liesel (5:07), 5. Betrayal (2:35), 6. The Glass Room (2:52), 7. Hana’s Departure (3:34), 8. Hiding (2:21), 9. Timelapse (1:28), 10. The House Falling to Pieces (4:59), 11. Reunion (4:13), 12. Sunglow (2:41), 13. The End of the Affair (5:06). Moviescore Media MMS-21024, 48 minutes 34 seconds.

 

LA COCINERA DE CASTAMAR – Iván Palomares

La Cocinera de Castamar is a Spanish period drama television series, adapted from the novel of the same name by Fernando Muñez. The show is set in early 18th-century Madrid, during the reign of King Philip V, and examines the relationship that develops between a widowed nobleman, the Duke of Castamar (Roberto Enríquez), and a shy and agoraphobic young woman named Clara Belmonte (Michelle Jenner) who takes a job in the Duke’s kitchens following the death of her father. It’s one of those lush, lavish historical dramas that the Spanish seem to do so well, and it features an equally sumptuous score by the exceptionally talented Spanish composer Iván Palomares.

Palomares’s previous scores – which have included titles such as En las Estrellas (2018), Ron Hopper’s Misfortune (2020), and Words for an End of the World (2020) – have often combined orchestral beauty and thematic strength with unusual avant-garde touches. La Cocinera de Castamar is similar, but in this instance Palomares leans very much more into the orchestral beauty aspect, using a full and lush orchestral palette to musically illustraye the forbidden relationship between Clara and the Duke. The score is built around several recurring main themes, my favorite of which is the opening one “Tema de Clara,” a simple but emotionally poignant piece that grows from a solo harp to encompass a full and lush symphony orchestra, surrounding a warmly romantic piano melody.

Other cues that stand out include the gorgeous cello duet in “Clara y Diego,” the gentle despair of “Alba, Diego, Enrique,” the upbeat rhythmic core of “Los Fogones de Castamar,” and the swooning romance of something like “Cena Sensorial” or “Amelia y Gabriel”. “Sol Montijos” has a touch of Mozart to its precise classical phrasing, and “Despedidas” is dream-like and enchanting, while conclusive cues as “Sí Estuve Aquí” and “Seis Meses Después” luxuriate in their string-led passion.

There is some darkness and inherent tragedy too, heard via the weeping strings of “Muerte de Rosalia,” the forlorn and agitated dissonance of “Amelia Descubre la Verdad Sobre Diego” and “Ejecucion de Padre,” or the determined-sounding pair comprising “En Busca de Gabriel” and “El Duelo” with the prominent percussive undercurrent in the former, and the trilling tremlolo strings in the latter. Not only that, in several cues, Palomares really leans into the historical setting of the series, and writes inventive and authentic-sounding source music featuring period instruments, including guitars, lutes, and woodwinds. Pieces like “Folias Palaciegas,” “Buscando Entre Fogones,” “Carrera de Capones,” and “Los Trabajadores de Castamar” are very good examples of this, and help the root the story and the romance in its time in history, while also demonstrating Palomares’s capacity for splendid renaissance pastiche.

The score for La Cocinera de Castamar was released as a 2-album set by Spanish label Atresmusica, and is available to download and stream from most good online retailers, and I cannot recommend it enough. Federico Jusid set the bar high for Spanish TV period dramas with his scores for shows like Isabel, and Iván Palomares has picked up that baton and run with it here. It’s a score awash in gorgeous, romantic string textures, elegant piano lines, and moments of period whimsy, all of which is massively impressive.

Track Listing: Volume 1 – 1. Tema de Clara (2:38), 2. Clara y Diego (2:24), 3. Alba, Diego, Enrique (2:58), 4. Los Fogones de Castamar (1:36), 5. Folias Palaciegas (0:53), 6. Amelia y Enrique (1:56), 7. Buscando Entre Fogones (1:26), 8. Sol Montijos (2:04), 9. Emplatando (1:06), 10. Cena Sensorial (2:07), 11. Folias Palaciegas 2 (1:10), 12. Reflexiones y el Rey Desaparece (2:13), 13. Muerte de Rosalia (4:00), 14. Clara, el Rey y Soluciones Reales (3:01), 15. Folias Palaciegas 3 (0:38), 16. Amelia Descubre la Verdad Sobre Diego (2:15), 17. Carrera de Capones (0:56), 18. Enrique Traiciona a Sol (2:28), 19. Creditos (1:00). Volume 2 – 1. Los Trabajadores de Castamar (1:08), 2. En Busca de Gabriel (1:49), 3. Sol Mata a Francisco (3:00), 4. El Duelo (2:51), 5. Reflexiones en la Cocina (1:25), 6. Amelia y Gabriel (2:51), 7. Despedidas (1:11), 8. Jardines Palaciegos (1:29), 9. El Destino de Sol (0:58), 10. Eres un Castamar (3:05), 11. Amelia Descubierta (1:38), 12. Sí Estuve Aquí (2:17), 13. Ejecucion del Padre (1:37), 14. Seis Meses Después (3:04), 15. La Boda (2:04), 16. Creditos Finales (1:59). Atresmusica, 69 minutes 31 seconds.

 

DEATH OF A GIRLFRIEND – Oscar Fogelström

As much as Christopher Wong is the unofficial king of Vietnamese movie music, so too Swedish composer Oscar Fogelström seems to be fulfilling the same role in the Philippines. Following on from Abomination in 2018, Aurora in 2019 and Nightshift in 2020, Fogelström’s latest score for a major Filipino movie is Death of a Girlfriend, a psychological drama for director Yam Laranas. The film tells the story of Alonzo (Diego Loyzaga) and Christine (AJ Raval) who fall in love with each other during their walks in the forest. However, the appearance of an elderly farmer and an obsessed warden leads to a tragedy with a Rashomon-inspired investigation as each participant has his own version to explain what happened to Christine in the woods.

Laranas specifically requested that Fogelström base his main theme on ‘Solveig’s Song’ from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt, as the topics of losing a loved one and keeping her memory seemed like a natural match for this story. The score also features an intercontinental collaboration between three continents – the movie was produced in the Philippines, Fogelström recorded the live strings and woodwinds in Sweden. However, and a Chinese instrument called a hulusi (a type of gourd flute) was recorded by fellow composer George Shaw in Los Angeles, and was incorporated into the Farmer’s theme.

Beyond the Grieg quotations in the opening piece, “Lovers Rock,” the mischievous “Missing School,” and the ghostly choral version in “The Turn,” all of which are of course excellent, there are some really lovely additional moments in the score that really showcase Fogelström’s talents. “I Love You” is dreamy and elegant, with just the merest hints of Grieg floating in the background of Fogelström’s lovely, playful string textures. “First Meeting” blushes with the shy hesitancy of teenage romance, a twittery collection of strings, fluttery woodwinds, and electric guitars.

Conversely, both “Interrogation” and “Conflicting Records” are stark and dramatic, with clattering percussion textures and eerie string sustains underscoring the police investigation into what happened to Christine, and whether Alonzo was involved. Similarly, as noted before, the hulusi gourd flute plays a major role in the threatening “The Farmer,” giving it a haunting soundscape that reminds of James Horner and scores like Patriot Games in tone and texture. The way Solveig’s Song is layered on top of the darkness of “Conflicting Records” is especially impressive, bringing the two main elements of the score together in a disturbingly effective tonal juxtaposition.

The final few cues, including “No Reply,” “The Reveal,” “Close To Your Heart,” and the “End Credits,” again make use of the Peer Gynt theme, but often twist it and alter it to give it an unsettling emotional impact, and on several occasions combine it further with the dramatic ‘interrogation’ ideas, especially in the moments leading up to the solving of the mystery at the center of the story. The lushness of the final cue is especially satisfying, being a combination of romance and bittersweet poignancy, with a hauntingly lovely vocal element accompanied by moody woodwinds, cascading strings, and harp glissandi.

The score for Death of a Girlfriend is available as a digital download from Moviescore Media and to stream via most of the major services. It’s a brief, but enjoyable romantic work from a part of the world not known for its excellence in film music, and if you have a soft spot for Grieg, then that’s a bonus too.

Track Listing: 1. Death of a Girlfriend (Solveig’s Song) (1:29), 2. I Love You (2:20), 3. Interrogation (4:18), 4. First Meeting (4:24), 5. Lovers Rock (2:32), 6. The Turn (2:09), 7. Missing School (1:32), 8. The Farmer (1:57), 9. Mushrooms (2:35), 10. Conflicting Records (4:11), 11. No Reply (1:26), 12. The Reveal (3:57), 13. Close to Your Heart (1:09), 14. End Credits (4:44). Moviescore Media MMS21035, 38 minutes 43 seconds.

 

FORGOTTEN WE’LL BE – Zbigniew Preisner

Forgotten We’ll Be – El Olvido Que Seremos in the original Spanish – is a biopic drama film from Colombia, directed by Oscar-winner Fernando Trueba. The film tells true life story of Héctor Abad Gómez, a Colombian medical doctor and university professor in the 1970s and 80s, who used his position an influence to establish the Colombian National School of Public Health. However, Abad’s fight for social justice in his community lead to political clashes between himself and the government of President Virgilio Barco Vargas, and his eventual death at the hands of paramilitary troops in 1987. The film is told in flashback from the point of view of Abad’s son Héctor, who was 29 when his father was murdered. The film, which was shown at the 2020 Cannes Film Festival and was the Colombian entry for Best International Feature Film at the 93rd Academy Awards, stars Javier Cámara as Abad, and has original score by Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner.

It’s been a fair few years since Preisner dropped out of the film music mainstream, and for the past decade or so he has been scoring low-profile features and short films for indie directors in Europe and South America – The History of Eternity in Brazil in 2014, La Reina España in Spain in 2016, Valley of Shadows in Norway in 2017, Mother Didn’t Know in Norway again in 2020. Forgotten We’ll Be seen Preisner returning to work with Trueba again after La Reina España, and for my money it’s his best score in probably 20 years.

Preisner is a composer with a slow, contemplative, meditative style, whose use of silence is as important as his use of sound. However, unlike so much of composer’s earlier scores, Preisner moves away from the familiar profundity and seriousness and writes music which is playful and tender, acknowledging that the concept of childhood and the loss of childhood innocence that plays a pivotal role in the story. The score is written mostly for a string orchestra, piano, and soft choir, plus solo instruments including a prominent harp, flues and oboes, and chimes. Any

The sound for the score is established in the lovely opening cue, “Return to Medellín,” while the two thematic presences that run through the score are introduced in “Letter to the Father” and “Letter from the Father,” representing the relationship between Héctor and his son with summery, inviting music. “Child’s Play” and “Flashback” are warm, whimsical, and might very well be the happiest pieces of music Preisner has ever written. “Children’s Hospital” is similarly charming and pretty, but also has a touch of bittersweetness; anyone familiar with his past scores will be reminded of both The Secret Garden from 1993 and Fairy Tale: A True Story from 1997 here.

Cues like “Torino” and especially “The Crime” use Morricone-esque stabbing piano chords and stark strings to capture the political danger surrounding Abad, before climaxing with neo-classical tragedy in the magnificent “The Pain,” which revisits the main theme with an appropriate amount of fully-orchestral darkness and melodrama that is quite outstanding, and has a touch of Wojciech Kilar to its tone. Occasionally Preisner’s music develops a religious, liturgical sound, via the use of church organs and choir, notably in the second half of “Letter to the Father”. Preisner says this was done ironically, showing the ‘ridiculousness of the church,’ but when this sound reaches its powerful peak in “Héctor Abad Gómez’s Funeral – End Credits” the effect is remarkable, and shows no evidence of irony or satire – just pure orchestral and choral intensity.

In a wonderful piece of meta composing, four pieces on the soundtrack are credited to Van den Budenmeyer, the ‘fake’ classical composer invented by Preisner and director Krzysztof Kieślowski back in the 1980s, and whose music featured prominently in the score for The Double Life of Veronika. These ‘new’ Van den Budenmeyer pieces are superb; “Farewell Part I,” “Farewell Part II,” “Farewell,” and “Farewell (Coro Transcription)” are all built around the same recurring string motif, a 10-note flurry that dances around each cue, and builds to a luscious climax wherein the choir takes over the main melodic line.

The score Forgotten We’ll Be was released by the German soundtrack label Caldera Records and producer Stephan Eicke, and is available on CD from the label via http://caldera-records.com/. It comes with an unqualified recommendation from me, and may be a perfect way in to Preisner’s music for anyone who has been looking for one.

Track Listing: 1. Return to Medellín (3:22), 2. Child’s Play (0:51), 3. Children’s Hospital (1:06), 4. Letter to the Father (4:00), 5. Letter From the Father (1:59), 6. In Cartagena (1:31), 7. The Morgue (1:18), 8. Van den Budenmayer: Farewell Part I (0:41), 9. Marta’s Disease (0:24), 10. Van den Budenmayer: Farewell Part II (1:03), 11. Torino (1:44), 12. Flashback (0:46), 13. The End of Happiness (1:49), 14. Return to the University (1:16), 15. The Crime (2:35), 16. Letter From the Father (Harp Version) (1:57), 17. The Pain (5:12), 18. Deep Sorrow (1:34), 19. Van den Budenmayer: Farewell (2:18), 20. Héctor Abad Gómez’s Funeral – End Credits (2:43), 21. Van den Budenmayer: Farewell (Coro Transcription) (2:21). Caldera Records C-6043, 40 minutes 29 seconds.

 

NEWTON’S CRADLE – Tamer Karawan

Newton’s Cradle – Leabet Newton in the original Arabic – was the most-watched Ramadan TV series of 2021. A sprawling 15-episode family drama, the show was written and directed by the Egyptian filmmaker Tamer Mohsen, and starred Mona Zaki, Mohamed Farraj, and Mohamed Mamdouh. The series tells a story of a middle-class Egyptian couple; Hazem, the husband, is the owner of a project for breeding honey bees, while Hana, the wife, is an agricultural engineer. The crux of the story follows their decision to try to secretly smuggle themselves to the United States so that their first child can be born there, and as such ensure it has citizenship of the most powerful country in the world. The different choices they make, the people they meet, and the circumstances they face as they try to make this dangerous plan a reality, is what drives the moral and ethical drama at the center of show.

The score for Newton’s Cradle is by Egyptian composer Tamer Karawan, who first came to my attention in 2020 with his score for another Ramadan drama, The Choice, although he has been working on film and TV projects across the Arabic-speaking world for years. It’s an orchestral work, serious and dramatic, which reminds me very much of some of the 1990s mid-range drama-thriller scores that people like James Newton Howard, Mark Isham, and Christopher Young used to knock out with pleasing regularity.

The “Titles” theme is prominent throughout the score, a memorable piece for moody strings and bright horns above a pizzicato percussive rhythm. Much of the score is rooted in this same style; it’s dark, dramatic rhythmic, and full of thrusting forward motion, with rhythmic textural ideas that jump across the entire string section, augmented by piano and percussion. The writing in cues like “Newton’s Cradle” is very impresses, and imposes on the listener the notion that the decisions Hazem and Hana are making have real, dangerous consequences.

Other cues note include the two string laments in the two “Mixed Feelings” cues, emotional and world-weary; the cello solo in the second of these is especially outstanding. The music for “Badr,” one of the shadowy figures Hazem and Hana are forced to deal with, is appropriately threatening, while the subsequent “The Strength Within” introduces an almost subliminal heartbeat under the low-key string figures, reminding us about what is ultimately driving the story, and what is at stake. I also like the unsettling tick-tock percussion and bleak piano chords in “The Unknown,” the warm and inviting use of acoustic guitars in “I Have the Strength” and “Overthinking,” the electronic pulses and overall sense of intensity in “In Trouble,” the sense of melancholy in “All is Gone,” and the powerful climax in “Gathering Strength” and the final “Credits,” which sees the return of the main theme with real distinction.

Unfortunately the score for Newton’s Cradle is not available for commercial purchase – this release is a promo produced by Karawan for awards consideration purposes – but virtually the entire score is available to stream, for free, through the composer’s SoundCloud at https://soundcloud.com/karawan. This is intelligent, emotional, dramatically relevant film scoring, and yet more evidence that there is still terrific theme-based genre scoring out there in the world, if you are willing to look for it.

Track Listing: 1. Titles (3:33), 2. Newton’s Cradle (3:36), 3. Mixed Feelings 1 (3:32), 4. Mixed Feelings 2 (4:41), 5. Badr (3:04), 6. The Strength Within (7:26), 7. The Unknown (6:52), 8. I Have the Strength (3:39), 9. In Trouble (5:17), 10. Overthinking (2:17), 11. All is Gone (2:50), 12. Moving On (4:27), 13. Gathering Strength (4:42), 14. Credits (4:27). Promo, 60 minutes 27 seconds.

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