Home > Reviews > Under-the-Radar Round Up 2021, Part 4A

Under-the-Radar Round Up 2021, Part 4A

November 30, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

2021 is almost over 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 next installment in my ongoing series of articles looking at the best “under the radar” scores from around the world. The five titles included here represent some of the best film music heard this year to date, and include a sweeping religious-themed biopic from Spain, two historical epics from China (scored by American composers), a Japanese murder-mystery sequel, and an emotional drama score from Poland set in Auschwitz.

 

CLARET – Oscar Martín Leanizbarrutia

Claret is an epic historical biopic from Spain directed by Pablo Moreno, which tells the life story of Antonio Maria Claret, usually known as ‘Padre Claret,’ who founded the religious order of the Missionary Sons of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, commonly called the Claretians, in Spain in the mid-1800s, and who is today considered one of the great religious leaders and scholars of his time. He established libraries and schools and centers of learning, was a trusted confidant of Queen Isabella II, and was eventually canonized by Pope Pius XII in 1950, 80 years after his death. The film stars Antonio Reyes as Claret, Alba Redondo as Isabella, and has an absolutely sensational original score by the brilliant young Spanish composer Oscar Martín Leanizbarrutia.

As one might expect given the subject matter, Claret is a score which leans heavily into the sound of religious and spiritual veneration which, in film music terms, usually means big themes written for a big orchestra. The opening “Claret, Tema Principal” is a perfect example of this; it’s a moving, tragic, profound, exceptionally beautiful theme which builds out from a gorgeous cello solo until it is embraced by the full orchestra. Leanizbarrutia’s arrangements are superb, bringing each instrumental tone to the forefront in turn, and then when he layers in the choir the effect is spectacular. The piece ends with a tender turn for a classical guitar, which sets an instrumental marker for several subsequent cues, and is very attractive indeed. The whole thing is one of the most superb individual cues of the year.

Inevitably, the rest of the score tends to pale in comparison to this sumptuous opening, but there are still numerous moments of musical excellence to be found in Leanizbarrutia’s work. Some of the music has a little flavor of Spanish folk music running through it, speaking to Claret’s origins and memories of home, while others have a prominent sense of religious reverence that speaks to Claret’s work and piety. The main theme meanders through many of the subsequent cues, in a more subdued form, bringing the whole thing together; there are notable performances in “La Pena de Azorín,” “Tesoros en el Cielo,” “Segunda Predicación” (where it is accompanied by lively tribal percussion), the tragic “Un Arzobispo Misionero,” and the vibrant and flamboyant “Cuba,” among many others.

Several additional cues stand out. “Madrid, 1930” is playful, almost child-like and whimsical with its woodwind writing. “La Traición/Carma,” the gorgeous “Tesoros en el Cielo,” and “Ave María” feature some soft choral tones, often performed in lovely combination with warm oboe melodies. “En Misión” is subtly triumphant and heraldic, with more emphasis on brass. “Primera Predicación/Guerra” and “Ataque,” as one might expect, are more dramatic and intense, with war-like drums underpinning the orchestra, and with the latter using church organs in an action setting to excellent effect.

As the score builds to its conclusion, so too does Leanizbarrutia’s music, which increases its dramatic scope and intensity to match. “La Reina Niña” and “Por Qué Me Has Traído Aquí?” are full of rich classical violin textures, “He Firmado el Tratado” reprises the main theme with gracefulness and elegance, “Exilio de Azorín” explores some darker corners, “La Revolución” has a sense of forward motion and unstoppable destiny through some moments of dissonance and urgency, and the conclusive “Exilio de la Reina” is a haunting duet for piano and violin threaded with gossamer strands of the main theme.

The whole thing is just outstanding, and yet again proves that Spanish cinema is inspiring some of the best film music in the world – as it has been now for more than a decade. Claret is one of the best scores of 2021, a moving and powerful epic built around one of the year’s most outstanding main themes. It’s been almost five years since Leanizbarrutia’s last major score, Red de Libertad, and I hope we don’t have to wait as long for this outstanding young composer’s next masterpiece. The score is available to download and stream from Amazon, Spotify, and various other good online retailers, but at the time of writing does not have a physical CD release.

Track Listing: 1. Claret, Tema Principal (6:58), 2. Madrid, 1930 (1:00), 3. La Pena de Azorín (2:10), 4. Los Planes de Antonio (1:12), 5. La Traición/Carma (2:03), 6. Tesoros en el Cielo (2:26), 7. En Misión (2:38), 8. Primera Predicación/Guerra (2:32), 9 Segunda Predicación (1:34), 10. Un Arzobispo Misionero (1:18), 11. Cuba (1:36), 12. La Esperanza de Lucas (2:58), 13. Boda (0:58), 14. Ave María (2:12), 15. Ataque (1:26), 16. Derrotado (3:16), 17. Un Esclavo Nunca Es Libre (1:34), 18. La Reina Niña (1:26), 19. Por Qué Me Has Traído Aquí? (2:32), 20. He Firmado el Tratado (1:53), 21. Exilio de Azorín (3:24), 22. La Revolución (3:18), 23. Exilio de la Reina (3:48). Oscar Martín Leanizbarrutia/Stellarum Films, 54 minutes 12 seconds.

 

THE CURSE OF TURANDOT – Simon Franglen

The Curse of Turandot is a Chinese romantic fantasy film directed by Zheng Xiaolong, starring Guan Xiaotong in the title role. The story is derived from the same folk tale that inspired Puccini’s great opera Turandot, but with some added fantastical and action elements. The plot revolves around a ‘tri-color bracelet,’ which is brought back to Mongolia as spoils of war by the army of the Great Khan, following an attack on the kingdom of Malavia. The Queen of Malavia (Sophie Marceau) places a curse on Khan’s only daughter, Turandot, effectively preventing her from marrying – and thus ending the king’s bloodline – unless a suitor can answer three riddles correctly; whoever tries to solve them and fails, dies. An orphan named Calaf (played – somewhat inexplicably – by Dylan Sprouse from The Suite Life of Zack & Cody), meets the princess, and they fall in love; however, his desire to solve the riddles is rejected by Turandot, who does not want him to die for her. Meanwhile, in the background, the political machinations of bloodthirsty general result in him trying to harness the power of the tri-color bracelet for himself so that he can usurp the throne.

The score for The Curse of Turandot is by composer Simon Franglen, and as such becomes the latest in a long line of western composers to score major films in China. What’s interesting about the timing of this score is the fact that it comes hot on the heels of the announcement that Franglen will be scoring all of James Cameron’s Avatar sequels, in the footsteps of his great friend and collaborator James Horner. When he was announced as the Avatar composer there were a lot of skeptical noises made, wondering whether Franglen had the compositional chops to follow Horner; although he had worked with Horner for many years as an arranger and synth programmer, his only major works as a solo composer were for the remake of The Magnificent Seven that Horner was scoring when he died, and the thriller Peppermint, neither of which gave any indication that he was capable of rising to the challenge of scoring Avatar. Fortunately, The Curse of Turandot dispels any lingering doubts – it’s a bold, sweeping, thematic, action packed orchestral epic that pays direct lip service to Horner’s sound and style.

The score’s main theme is actually the last cue on the soundtrack, but’s a beauty; regal, elegant, stately, it builds out of a bed of gorgeous warm strings until it is majestically enveloped by the full orchestra and choir, performing a theme that speaks to the passion and forbidden love at the center of the story. This theme is reprised several times in the score proper, with the first notable statement coming in the massive opening cue “Entry to the Khan’s Palace”.

The rest of the score is no less impressive. There are moments of calmness and reflection in cues like “Master Zhou Returns,” “Holding Hands,” the romantic and passionate “Turandot and Calaf Sword Training,” many of which make especially gorgeous use of Chinese instrumental textures, especially erhu, and some of which accent the orchestra with some tender vocal and choral writing. There are moments of darkness and tragedy, such as in “Turandot Bound,” “Calaf Joins the Prince,” and the magnificent “Blood,” counterbalanced by gorgeous sequences of gaiety and ebullience, such as in the superb “Dance of the Looms”.

The action music, when it comes, adopts a more modernistic tone through the increased used of keyboards, synthesizers, and electronic percussion, bolstering the orchestral component significantly. Cues like “Attack on Malvia,” “Training with Boyan,” “Hope,” and the outstanding pair “Saving Calaf” and “The Horse Chase” are imposing and entertaining, raising the tempo of the score with frantic string writing, rapid tempos, and increased urgency. There is a forceful horn motif that runs through much of music, trying it together and bringing a cohesiveness that so many other scores of this type lack. It all builds up to the score’s imposing finale, comprising the cues “Calaf Captured,” “Boyan’s Deception,” “The Throne Room Battle,” and “The Final Duel,” which expand the score’s action material significantly, add in moments of darkness and dissonance, and offer several brilliant statements of the main theme and the main action motif. I have read commentary from some quarters stating that the electronic and synth elements are too prominent, but I disagree; I think the balance between them and the orchestra is perfect, and the whole thing is a terrific listening experience overall.

It’s also worth mentioning that several cues offer textural and compositional echoes of James Horner that are especially pleasing. The undulating string writing in the second half of “Entry to the Khan’s Palace,” the playfulness of parts of “Chasing the Butterfly,” the string runs in “Attack on Malvia,” the staccato brass triplets in “Training with Boyan,” and more, will all give long-time Horner aficionados moments of nostalgic happiness.

The Curse of Turandot is a superb score, easily one of 2021’s best, and yet again proves that producers and directors in countries like Japan and China are the ones commissioning the sweeping thematic orchestral scores that directors in Hollywood are not – and that it is to the east that film music fans should be looking for this type of content. As I said earlier, the quality of this score really gives me hope that Franglen’s Avatar sequel scores will be appropriate follow-up to Horner’s original. The score is available as a CD import from retailers such as YesAsia, and is available to stream on western platforms such as Spotify, Youtube, and Amazon Music.

Track Listing: 1. Entry to the Khan’s Palace (3:40), 2. Chasing the Butterfly (1:39), 3. Attack On Malvia (3:35), 4. Master Zhou Returns (1:43), 5. Holding Hands (1:59), 6. Where Have You Been Playing (1:06), 7. Training With Boyan (3:43), 8. Turandot and Calaf Sword Training (5:07), 9. Turandot Bound (2:10), 10. Dance of the Looms (3:43), 11. Boyan and the High Priest (3:00), 12. Calaf Joins the Prince (2:23), 13. Hope (3:46), 14. Blood (4:40), 15. Saving Calaf (3:06), 16. The Horse Chase (1:30), 17. The Answer (2:06), 18. Calaf Captured (3:02), 19. Boyan’s Deception (2:26), 20. The Throne Room Battle (5:54), 21. The Final Duel (2:00), 22. Call Me Blue Eyes (3:50), 23. Turandot Theme (3:44). Milan, 69 minutes 42 seconds.

 

MASQUERADE NIGHT – Naoki Sato

Masquerade Night is a Japanese murder-mystery thriller film, and is a sequel to the 2019 film Masquerade Hotel. The film is directed by Masayuki Suzuki, based on the novel by Keigo Higashino, and Takuya Kimura returns to star as Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department Detective Kosuke Nitta. When he receives an anonymous letter stating that a murder suspect will appear at masquerade ball party at the Hotel Cortesia, Nitta must again go undercover at the hotel; he up with concierge Naomi Yamagishi (Masami Nagasawa), his partner from the first film, and must race against the clock to find the criminal among the 500 attendees.

Also returning to the Masquerade franchise is composer Naoki Sato, whose score for Masquerade Hotel was nominated by the IFMCA as Best Original Score for an Action/Adventure/Thriller Film in 2019, and was one of my own five Score of the Year nominees. Sato remains one of the world’s greatest ‘unknown’ film composers – he is certainly lauded in Japanese film music circles, but the fact that he has never scored a film in English means that far too many people are unaware of his wonderful gifts for melody, beauty, and drama.

The score opens with the “Masquerade Night Main Title” 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. It’s an identical reprise of the main theme from the first film – which makes sense, considering that the setting and the lead characters are the same – and any chance we have to revisit this stunning music is always welcome. There are two other direct reprises too; “Confusion” is a reprise of the first score’s thunderous main action idea, while the conclusive “Masquerade Night End Title” reprises the accordion variation on the main theme.

Thankfully, there is a great deal of music too, making the sequel a delightful continuation of the story. Cues like “Information Provision,” “Spoilation of Evidence,” “The Only Clue,” and “Guests in Disguise” are dramatic and sinister, with an air of mystery conveyed with low, brooding strings, moody brass passages, and light wooden percussion textures. Both “The Only Clue” and “Guests in Disguise” also feature a slow, sinister variations on the main theme which are very effective.

These same textures take on a more intense and threatening aura in action sequences such as the fantastic “Snitch,” which also uses the accordion in a more prominent manner. The accordion textures are actually layered all throughout much of the score, and increases the overarching ‘pseudo-French’ feeling of much of the music, which is clearly intended to be a reflection of the richness of their historic masquerade balls. Later, “Ambiguous Notification Content” is an exercise in pure dissonance, while “The Third Murder” is a dark and menacing thriller sequence full of tumultuous string passages and eerie, cascading brass textures, while the extended set piece “Madam Masquerade Flowers” takes things even further by adding the spooky tones of a choir and spooky electronic textures into the mix; this latter piece becomes quite epic by its conclusion.

The conclusive “Clown Mask” and “True Tears” have a sense of almost magical wonderment, underpinned with a little hint of tragedy, and use high end instruments – glockenspiels, string sustains, tinkling pianos – to create the sparkling mood. “Happy Time” is a gorgeous swell of sweeping emotional and romance, and provides a perfect lead in to the “End Title”.

Overall, Masquerade Night is perhaps a step behind its predecessor in terms of the strength of its highlights and the intensity of the score overall, and the whole thing is a little more subdued overall, but there is still a great amount of superb music within its confines, and it is absolutely recommended to anyone who enjoyed the first score in the series, or who is an admirer of Naoki Sato’s work in general. The score is available as a CD import from Japanese retailers such as YesAsia, and is available to stream on western platforms such as Amazon Music.

Track Listing: 1. Masquerade Night Main Title (3:57) , 2. Jouhou Teikyou/Information Provision (1:00), 3. Shouko Inmetsu/Spoilation of Evidence (0:50), 4. Mikkokusha/Snitch (1:53), 5. Yuiitsu No Tegakari/The Only Clue (2:29), 6. Ayashii Kyaku/Suspicious Guest (2:24), 7. Kasou Shita Kyaku Tachi/Guests in Disguise (1:43), 8. Juudai Shouko No Nazo/The Mystery of Serious Evidence (3:27), 9. Aimai Na Mikkoku Naiyou/Ambiguous Notification Content (1:03), 10. Shougou/Collation (2:10), 11. Sandome No Satsujin/The Third Murder (1:20), 12. Madam Masquerade No Hana/Madam Masquerade Flowers (5:47), 13. Konran/Confusion (3:09), 14. Pierrot No Kamen/Clown Mask (2:18), 15. Shinjitsu No Namida/True Tears (3:58), 16. Shiawase Na Jikan/Happy Time (3:48), 17. Masquerade Night End Title (3:58). Columbia Japan, 45 minutes 34 seconds.

 

MISTRZ [THE CHAMPION OF AUSCHWITZ] – Bartosz Chajdecki

Tadeusz “Teddy” Pietrzykowski was a boxing champion in Poland in the 1930s, and was considered one of Europe’s top bantamweight title contenders; however, his career was cut short by the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. Pietrzykowski was a member of the Polish resistance movement, and fought in the Battle of Warsaw, but was captured in 1940 and was sent to the newly-created Auschwitz concentration camp as part of the first transport of prisoners. While in Auschwitz Pietrzykowski was forced to fight in numerous boxing matches for the amusement of the camp commanders; however, Pietrzykowski’s numerous victories actually helped boost morale for his fellow prisoners, and he also used his privileged position in the camp to usurp orders, sneak food to other prisoners, and plan assassinations and escape attempts. Stories similar to this have been told before, most notably in the 1989 American film The Triumph of the Spirit starring Willem Dafoe. This film, Mistrz – known in English as The Champion of Auschwitz – tells a more accurate account of Pietrzykowski’s life story. It was directed by Maciej Barczewski, stars Piotr Glowacki as Pietrzykowski.

The score for Mistrz is by the great young Polish composer Bartosz Chajdecki, who burst into the scene in 2008 with his incredible score for WWII-era TV series Czas Honoru, and has since impressed me with excellent works including Baczynski in 2013, Powstanie Warszawski in 2014, and Le Temps d’Anna 2016, among many others. For Mistrz, Chajdecki was tasked with to balancing the hardship and despair of life in Auschwitz with some intense sporting drama and more uplifting moments of hope and triumph – not an easy task to achieve. It’s interesting to compare this score with Cliff Eidelman’s score for the film Triumph of the Spirit, which tackled essentially the same subject matter; Chajdecki’s score is more modernistic and more intense than Eidelman’s overall, but some of Chajdecki’s writing – especially for voices – is sublime.

Cues like “Przeszłość,” “Wigilia,” “Nadzieja,” and “Przyszłość” use the vocals of soprano vocals of Liliana Pociecha over the orchestra to excellent effect, juxtaposing the horrors of the location with a soaring, almost angelic appeal. The best of these choral cues is clearly the stunning “Aria Bez Słów” – the Aria Without Words – which is easily one of the most traditionally beautiful cues of Chajdecki’s career to date. There is a hint of Wojciech Kilar to this choral writing – perhaps intentionally – especially scores like The Ninth Gate, and Pociecha has a timbre to her voice similar to Sumi Jo, which I love.

Further enhancing the overall religioso quality of the score overall is Chajdecki’s use of a church organ in combination with the orchestra; the inevitable liturgical sound of the instrument speaks directly Pietrzykowski’s faith, and how he used that to help himself and other prisoners cope with the atrocities going on around them. Cues like the opening “Pierwszy Apel” feature the organ prominently. The various “Walka” fight sequences, as well as related cues like “Przegrana” and “Odliczanie” are mostly stark and full of foreboding, a mass of rattling percussion patterns, chugging strings, and insistent electronic tonalities enhancing the danger, some of which are slightly tempered with classical strings. Meanwhile, pieces like “Maria” initially sound more traditionally romantic and appealing, soft strings and harps, but are blighted by dark horn clusters that bring the dreamy romance back to reality.

The conclusive pair “Wyjście” and “Życie” are filled with relief and something approaching disbelief, classical string figures and hesitant pianos circulating, staggering, towards freedom, before eventually exploding in a close approximation of rapture and deliverance. The bonus cue “Niema Aria” is a reprise of that theme for the full orchestra, sans Pociecha’s vocals, and is just gorgeous.

I keep praising Bartosz Chajdecki’s music, promoting his scores, and writing about his work, in the hope that some day it will bear fruit and that he will be hired to score a project with a more international outside Poland – but, until that happens, I still recommend Mistrz as being yet another superb score from this talented young composer, whose profile should be more prominent than it is. The score is available to download and stream from Apple Music, Spotify, on Youtube, and from various other good online retailers, but at the time of writing does not have a physical CD release.

Track Listing: 1. Pierwszy Apel (2:24), 2. Przeszłość (2:40), 3. Walka I (1:39), 4. Niepokój (2:26), 5. Maria (1:13), 6. Walka II (1:25), 7. Chleb (1:19), 8. Przegrana (4:23), 9. Wigilia (2:15), 10. Odliczanie (2:51), 11. Walka III (1:00), 12. Nadzieja (2:19), 13. Ciała (2:05), 14. Aria Bez Słów (4:14), 15. Zapowiedź (1:01), 16. Doły (2:52), 17. Przyszłość (1:41), 18. Ostatnia Walka (4:18), 19. Wyjście (5:45), 20. Życie (3:23), 21. Niema Aria – Bonus (4:14), 22. Wspomnienie – Bonus (4:21). Chajdecki Music, 59 minutes 56 seconds.

 

MY COUNTRY MY PARENTS  – Gordy Haab

My Country My Parents, also known as Me and My Fathers, is a Chinese anthology drama film looking at different aspects of Chinese society, history, and ambition, as envisaged by four actor-directors: Wu Jing, Zhang Ziyi, Xu Zheng, and Shen Teng. Each of the four segments – which are titled ‘Windriders,’ ‘Poem,’ ‘Ad Man,’ and ‘Go Youth’ – cover a different genre and take place in different periods in history, from the period of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1942 to the futuristic world of the year 2050. It’s clearly a pro-communism propaganda piece, as it was funded by the Chinese government and was released to coincide with the 72nd anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China as part of a larger project called the “National Day Celebration Trilogy” trilogy alongside the earlier films My People My Country (2019) and My People My Homeland (2020).

Somewhat unexpectedly, the score for the ‘Windriders’ part of My Country My Parents is by the American composer and video game specialist Gordy Haab, whose previous popular works include Star Wars Battlefront II, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, and Star Wars: Squadrons. Quite how Haab got involved in this is unclear – his hiring apparently came quite late into post-production and was facilitated by trans-Pacific music supervisor Fei Yu, who often hires American-based composers for Chinese films – and what his involvement on the other three segments is remains unclear, but whatever the circumstances are, I’m delighted that this happened, because the music for ‘Windriders’ is quite outstanding.

It tells the story of the resistance of the Jizhong Cavalry Regiment during the aforementioned Second Sino-Japanese War, and is a bold and dramatic score filled with action, sweeping adventure, and thematic heroism. The score is built almost entirely around a single theme, which is introduced in the first cue “Homeland,” and appears frequently thereafter. It an unashamedly emotional piece, a throwback to the 1990s, which blends a large western orchestra with traditional Chinese instruments, and has a warm and appealing Hollywood sound enlivened by chord progressions typical of regional folk music.

The action sequences, in cues like “Going to War,” “The Village,” “Villagers March,” “Trapped,” “Decoy,” “The Ambush”, and “Cheng Feng” are superb, intense, and filled with rousing rhythmic parts swirling away under the large orchestra. There are echoes of James Horner’s 1990s music in the way some of the music is structured – I got flavors of Legends of the Fall and Titanic, among others, especially from the brass triplets that emerge from time to time – and Haab allows the cues to flow with a natural strength that is really compelling. The more sensitive writing for cello and woodwinds in “Father and Son” showcase a different, more tender side to Haab’s musical personality, and then the numerous moments where he injects sweeping, passionate statements of the main theme really give the score an emotional kick, resulting in some of 2021’s most rewarding music. The use of traditional Chinese woodwinds instruments to carry the melody in “The Ambush” is especially noteworthy.

“The Final Battle” is the score’s 9-minute epic conclusion, where Haab brings everything together in a celebration of Chinese culture, heroism, sacrifice, and patriotism. Everything I turned up to the max – the action music is powerful and exciting, the statements of the main theme are enormous, and the orchestral forces in play are huge. The whole thing is yet more grist for the mill in terms of video game specialist composers, and how more opportunities for media crossovers should be given. The score is available to download and stream from Apple Music, on Youtube, and from various other good online retailers, but at the time of writing does not have a physical CD release.

Track Listing: 1. Homeland (2:22), 2. Going to War (1:52), 3. The Village (1:28), 4. In Trouble (0:38), 5. Farewell (1:48), 6. Villagers March (1:02), 7. Trapped (1:29), 8. Sacrifice (1:17), 9. Father and Son (2:31), 10. Decoy (3:02), 11. The Ambush (3:55), 12. Cheng Feng (3:46), 13. The Final Battle (8:40), 14. The Next Generation (1:21). Hangzhou Yuyinniaoniao Culture Media, 35 minutes 11 seconds.

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  1. January 21, 2022 at 9:00 am

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