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

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

2021 is over and, as the world of mainstream blockbuster cinema and film music continues to recover from the COVID-19 Coronavirus, I again urge people to look beyond the confines of mainstream Hollywood to find the best film music being written. As such, I now present the second part of my final group of reviews 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 seasonal fantasy from the Netherlands, two British dramas telling very different true stories, and two spectacular entries from Scandinavia: a Finnish nature documentary, and a Norwegian variation on the Cinderella story.

 

THE CLAUS FAMILY 2 – Anne-Kathrin Dern

The second film in the series of Dutch-language family films, The Claus Family 2 is directed by Ruben Vandenborre, and stars Jan Declair, Mo Bakker and Bracha van Doesburgh. It continues the story of teenager Jules, who in the last film discovered that his grandfather is the real Santa Claus, and had to overcome his apathy towards the season and embrace his family’s legacy. In this second film, Jules is again getting ready for the busiest time of the year with grandpa Noël, until he receives a very special letter with an intriguing question – he is asked to help a very sad little girl named Marie reunite her broken family. The score for the film is again by the exceptional German composer Anne-Kathrin Dern, who this time not only leans into the sound of the season, but also writes some music that is heartbreakingly emotional.

Dern says “This isn’t your average feel-good Christmas movie. It’s a profound story about grief and loss during times of holidays. We go on a journey with this family trying to find their Christmas spirit again. The score very much tries to capture that struggle and alternates between isolating melancholy, exhilarating adventure, hopeful warmth, and Christmas joy.” Taking this into account, the centerpiece of the new score is the theme for “Marie,” which features the gorgeous tones of a bass recorder leading the melody, backed by a sentimental orchestra. Dern taught herself to play the instrument from scratch, and performs all the solos herself, and the cues which feature the theme are some of my favorite pieces of music of the year, especially “Marie’s Secret,” “Shadows of the Past,” and “Father”. There is a rich, soulful quality to this music that reminds me very much of some of Ennio Morricone’s most beautiful recorder pieces, as well as John Williams’s music for the third Harry Potter film.

The rest of the score is just magical, full of seasonal charm and sprinkled with moments of high drama and fantastical wonder. Several themes return from the previous score, including the gorgeous John Williams-style main theme heard in the opening cue, “The Claus Family 2”. A new theme for the film’s naughty elves appears in cues like “Mischief and Trouble,” “Steal the Globe,” and “Time is Running Out,” and is a playful dance for prancing orchestral textures and sparkling festive percussion that has some echoes of John Williams and Home Alone. Elsewhere, cues like “Mission Possible” have an action movie vibe, re-arranging the main theme with the energetic beat of Lalo Schifrin’s classic espionage capers. The whole thing is awash in seasonal orchestrations – chimes, bells, xylophones – which give the whole thing a cozy, wintry feel, like Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.

Two cues – the spooky “The Hidden Library” and “Unanswered Letters” – also feature beautiful performances by vocalist Tineke Roseboom, who adds a whole other level of magical wonderment to Dern’s music – her angelic tones sound especially excellent when they accompany the poignant sound of Marie’s theme. Everything builds to the score’s outrageously beautiful finale comprising “Fire and Smoke” and “The One True Gift,” which begins with a dramatic reprise of the main theme, contains some imposing orchestral action music, and ends with a final statement of Marie’s theme that drips with nostalgic and tender emotion.

The score was recorded in Macedonia with the The FAME’S Project Symphony Orchestra, and is available as a digital download from Moviescore Media and from most good online retailers. It comes with an unhesitating recommendation from me as yet another outstanding entry in Anne-Kathrin Dern’s burgeoning list of outstanding scores – it combines beautiful wintry orchestrions and emotional thematic writing with moments of playful action, and in Marie’s theme features one of the loveliest compositions of the year.

Track Listing: 1. The Claus Family 2 (1:43), 2. Marie (2:22), 3. Mischief and Trouble (1:17), 4. Mission Possible (1:59), 5. The Hidden Library (2:18), 6. Marie’s Secret (1:59), 7. Steal the Globe (1:50), 8. The Mall (1:33), 9. Unanswered Letters (1:56), 10. Shadows of the Past (2:45), 11. A Powerful Union (3:23), 12. Father (2:53), 13. Time Is Running Out (3:42), 14. Broken Promises (3:07), 15. Blend In (2:42), 16. Fire and Smoke (2:05), 17. The One True Gift (3:56). Moviescore Media MMS21079, 41 minutes 19 seconds.

 

THE DIG – Stefan Gregory

The Dig is a British drama film directed by Simon Stone, which re-imagines the events of the 1939 excavation of Sutton Hoo, in which the self-taught archaeologist Basil Brown found a priceless hoard of Anglo-Saxon artifacts dating from the 6th to 7th centuries on the grounds of a farmhouse in Suffolk. The film explores the relationship between Basil and the landowner, Edith Pretty, and Basil’s desperate attempts to maintain the integrity of the site after Ministry of Defence takes over the area during World War II, as well as his struggle to receive credit for the discovery afterwards. The film stars Ralph Fiennes, Carey Mulligan, Lily James, and Johnny Flynn, and has a score by a new name in film music circles – Australian composer Stefan Gregory.

Gregory is best known for his music and sound design for numerous stage productions, and previously collaborated with director Stone on a stage adaptation of Federico García Lorc’s Yerma. He has also had a rich and varied musical career that included a stint as a rock guitarist in the band Faker, plus many other ballet and theatre scores. The Dig is Gregory’s feature debut score, and it’s just gorgeous.

Gregory’s notes about the score say that he “employs intimate piano and rich orchestral pieces that evoke the picturesque Suffolk landscape,” and that really is a perfect description of the score. Much of the score has a sort of hazy, gauzy, summery sheen, and it reminds me quite a bit of the music someone like Craig Armstrong, or Dario Marianelli, or George Fenton might write for a film like this. Through a succession of initial cues – “Arrival,” “It Speaks,” “Graves” – Gregory’s delicate piano lines, plucked strings, and elegant woodwinds dance around each other, offering hesitant romance and soft natural beauty. It provides a consistent tone that weaves a hypnotic spell, but you have to buy into the tone of all, or I can see where it might become a little static and repetitive for some listeners.

“Hut Huddle” is a little more subdued, bordering on the gloomy, while the subsequent “A Ship” is warmer, and filled with a sense of introverted wonderment that perfectly captures the taciturn Brown’s relief and satisfaction at his archeological discovery, expressed with a series of gorgeous violin textures and rich, succulent piano chords. “Pretty Poorly” and “Diagnosis” are perhaps the most conventionally romantic pieces in the score, as they explore the kind friendship between Basil and Edith, especially in the context of her health struggles. “Finding Gold” uses more insistent string figures to give the cue a sense of dramatic thrust, matching the breathless exhilaration of the discoveries made by Brown and his team, while “Aftermath” feels much more anguished, with overlapping tremolo strings and a droning bass pedal adding to the drama.

The conclusive “Final Voyage” is an almost 9-minute summary of the score overall, and moves effortlessly between piano-led pathos and more strident strings in a way that is very satisfying. Unfortunately, the score for The Dig has not been released commercially in any format, although his publicists did produce a promo album for awards consideration purposes. Until that is rectified, the best place to hear excerpts of the score is on Gregory’s personal website at http://www.stefangregory.com.au/.

Track Listing: 1. Arrival (1:56), 2. It Speaks (1:05), 3. Graves (1:27), 4. Hut Huddle (2:15), 5. Pretty Poorly (2:45), 6. A Ship (2:27), 7. Diagnosis (3:07), 8. Finding Gold (2:57), 9. Married a Piglet (3:11), 10. Aftermath (2:43), 11. Human Handprint (0:58), 12. Final Voyage (8:46). Promo, 33 minutes 40 seconds.

 

DREAM HORSE – Benjamin Woodgates

Dream Horse is a British comedy-drama about steeplechase horse racing. Specifically, it tells the true story of Dream Alliance, a thoroughbred racehorse who was raised by bartender Janet Vokes in a small town in Wales, and reared on an allotment. With very little money and no experience in training horses, Janet convinces her neighbors to help, and together they form the Alliance Partnership, and the money they cobble together helps train Dream Alliance well enough that he can start to compete with the elites of the horse racing world. Eventually the horse becomes a ‘beacon hope for their struggling community,’ and has success on the course too, with his biggest success coming in 2009 with his victory in the prestigious Welsh Grand National. The film is directed by Euros Lyn, stars Toni Collette, Damian Lewis, and Owen Teale, and has a score by up-and-coming British composer Benjamin Woodgates.

Woodgates is an alumnus of Oxford University and the Royal College of Music, and has worked with composers like Lorne Balfe and Daniel Pemberton as an orchestrator and arranger on film and television projects including Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Victoria, and The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. Dream Horse is Woodgates’s debut score as lead composer, and it’s genuinely excellent, marking him as an emerging talent to watch for the future.

In many ways, Dream Horse is very much a prototypical orchestral sports score – there’s a prominent main theme, moments of sadness and adversity, and eventual explosions of triumph in victory, but what makes this score stand out is the fact that it has a bold, lush, almost aggressively lyrical streak that captures the deep and profound musical heritage of the Welsh valleys where the film is set, and where the horse was raised. The opening series of cues, comprising things like “The Syndicate,” “Just Starting On It Now,” and “Cefn Fforest” are quiet and intimate evocations of this, a series of textures for pianos and accordions and soft strings that are gently haunting, while also gently riffing in the comedic elements inherent in the situation.

The first real standout performance comes in “The Hwyl,” wherein the strings start to reach for more poignant heights. The sense of anticipation and pride in Dream Alliance’s run up to the Welsh Grand National builds through “Be Brave and Brilliant,” the bouncily rhythmic “In For a Penny,” and the ebullient “Chepstow,” eventually climaxing in the rapturous “Sixteen to One,” which underscores his victory with music that mimics the ups and downs of the race itself – savage slashing strings keeping time with the hooves, the bump and bustle of the jockeys vying for position, and then the disbelief and joy of the win itself.

The second half of the score is a little more subdued, often featuring melancholy string and piano textures, mournful chords from the accordion, and a more downbeat attitude, as it deals with Dream Alliance’s post-Chepstow injury issues, and his failure to complete the 2010 Grand National at Aintree, leading to the eventual end of his racing career. “Hanging in the Balance” is especially sullen, but the bittersweet “Dad” and then “The Gallops” and Tacking Up” allow some light and positivity to come back into the proceedings. The classical string writing in the latter pair of these three cues is especially uplifting.

However, for me, the standout cue of the entire score is undoubtedly “Let Him Run,” a boisterous and sweeping testament to the beauty of these majestic racehorses, the excitement and energy of their speed and power, the lush green of the Welsh valleys, and the salt of the earth people who love them all, and who loved Dream Alliance in particular. The final track, ”Delilah,” is a fun instrumental arrangement of the famous Tom Jones song, which doubles down on the score’s Welshness so much that at this point it should be eating laverbread and waving daffodils.

The score for Dream Horse is available as a digital download from all the usual online retailers, and I absolutely recommend it. Based on the work shown here, Benjamin Woodgates is a talent to watch for the future, and I for one hope that the quality of this score allows his career to take off in a big way.

Track Listing: 1. The Syndicate (1:49), 2. Just Starting On It Now (2:16), 3. Cefn Fforest (1:14), 4. The Hwyl (1:25), 5. Be Brave and Brilliant (3:03), 6. It’s Not Much, But It’s Home (1:13), 7. In For a Penny (1:30), 8. Chepstow (1:46), 9. Life Cycle (1:44), 10. I’m Jan (1:16), 11. Sixteen to One (5:08), 12. This Won’t Get Out Of Hand (0:25), 13. Procession (0:59), 14. Aintree – Prelude (0:39), 15. Aintree – Ground (1:32), 16. By A Thread (1:11), 17. Hanging in the Balance (1:24), 18. Dad (2:59), 19. The Gallops (3:05), 20. Tacking Up (1:52), 21. Let Him Run (5:27), 22. Proper Valleys Boy (1:36), 23. Delilah (written by Les Reed and Barry Mason) (2:14). Decca Records, 45 minutes 56 seconds.

 

TALE OF THE SLEEPING GIANTS – Panu Aaltio

Tale of the Sleeping Giants – known as Tunturin Tarina in its native Finnish – is the third and final film in the Tale series of documentaries, following Tale of a Lake in 2012 and Tale of a Foreest in 2016, which looks at the fauna and flora of Finland. This film specifically concentrated on the fells – the barren mountains – of the Sápmi or Lapland region in northern Finland, which is especially rich in unusual wildlife, and is steeped in magic and ancient mythology which draws on folk tales and legends from Sámi culture. The score for the film is again by the great Panu Aaltio, who says: “Being the third film in the Tale series, I was searching for new timbres. One day director Marko Röhr suggested that we ask the vocal group Tuuletar, who are absolute masters of using their voice as an instrument, to perform on the score. I was just about to call him saying the same thing, so it was clear we had an idea where to go! Then, once we got the amazing orchestra Tapiola Sinfonietta on board, I knew we could make the score sound both familiar and different. The music portrays the full range of Lapland, from the magical, cold landscapes of winter to nature’s vibrant colors and life in the summer.”

There’s a wonderful, ethereal, mystical quality to the score for Tale of the Sleeping Giants that I love. It’s less traditionally romantic than the previous two scores in the series, but in this instance that’s a good thing – there’s something ancient and primeval about this music, something that taps into the myths and legends of the region. The opening cue, “The Message,” is almost a perfect encapsulation of the score, as it blends the orchestra with the vocals in an endless array of different ways. Tuuletar’s vocals are fascinating; sometimes they are spiky and angular, with different competing and overlapping layers of acapella sound, while elsewhere they are ghostly and haunting, like echoes over a snow-covered plain. Together they create a vivid kaleidoscopic sound that is just outstanding. Aaltio’s complementary orchestral writing is superb – richly arranged, both intimate and expansive, with bold instrumental colors and especially notable writing for strings, brass, and woodwinds. The recurring three-note motif that carried through the first two films is again present here, but other than that none of the other thematic ideas from the previous scores return.

Many cues are notable standouts. “God of Wind” uses the iconic sound of a dulcimer to again make that connection between contemporary Finland and its ancient past. “Birth of a Reindeer” and “Jaybird and Mole” are emotional, intimate, pastoral pieces for lyrical woodwinds that celebrate the cycle of death and rebirth with a warm, quiet, playfully charming sound. “Friends” explodes with joyous rapture and freedom. “The Ice Breaks” is a monumental orchestral action cue – one of the best of Aaltio’s career – that encompasses the full range of the orchestra, and incorporates some vicious pulsating action rhythms that wouldn’t sound out place in a Hollywood blockbuster. “Crown Snow” uses echoing piano textures and hypnotic vocal tintinnabulation to mimic the sound icy landscape.

Later, “Battle of the Birds” uses wild, irreverent percussion and clamoring vocals to create an intimidating atmosphere. “Stoat and the Owl” begins with broad, lyrical comedy music, but then turns much darker in its conclusion. “Bird Island” is playful and charming, and uses xylophones to convey a sense of elegant movement. “Muskoxen” is majestic and powerful, and showcases Tuuletar’s vocals in a broad, open way. “Ruff Revue” is a rambunctious and anarchic explosion of rock music featuring an Eddie Van Halen-style electric guitar solo. “The Scary Vole” is anything of the sort, instead being a whimsical and slightly amusing piece for breathy flutes and pizzicato textures, before coming bombastic and fulsome during its second half. “Fall Colors” explodes with rich and vibrant orchestral and vocal textures, while the extended penultimate piece “The Giant Era” is a lilting, lyrical cue that brings all the disparate styles together with grace and elegance.

The is available as a digital download from Moviescore Media and from most good online retailers, and will be released on CD through Quartet Records at some point in 2022. For the third straight time Aaltio has written one of the best scores of the year for a Finnish nature documentary, and in completing this trilogy now has one of the greatest series of such scores in history. Tale of the Sleeping Giants, and its two predecessors, comes with an unhesitating recommendation for anyone wanting to hear some of the best music of its type written in this or any year.

Track Listing: 1. The Message (7:14), 2. God of Wind (4:01), 3. Birth of a Reindeer (2:31), 4. Friends (1:54), 5. The Ice Breaks (2:46), 6. Crown Snow (5:41), 7. Battle of the Birds (2:58), 8. Stoat and the Owl (3:06), 9. Bird Island (3:50), 10. Wagtail and the Eaglet (2:24), 11. Muskoxen (2:29), 12. Jaybird and the Mole (2:39), 13. Ruff Revue (2:43), 14. Wolverines (1:58), 15. Fox Family (2:19), 16. Ants (1:43), 17. The Scary Vole (3:04), 18. Fall Colors (2:13), 19. Salmon Spawn (1:33), 20. The Giant Era (5:29), 21. Crow Syndicate (2:46). Moviescore Media MMS21004, 65 minutes 34 seconds.

 

TRE NØTTER TIL ASKEPOTT – Gaute Storaas

Tre Nøtter Til Askepott is a Norwegian family fantasy film based on the fairy story Cinderella. It’s a remake of the German-Czech film of the same name from 1973, which is a Christmas staple in Scandinavian countries, and which has been broadcast on television on Christmas Eve there every year since 1996. The story is a familiar one – beautiful young girl mis-treated by her stepmother and step-siblings, a dance at the nearby castle, and handsome prince – with the main difference being that, instead of a fairy godmother, Cinderella’s wishes are granted by a trio of magical nuts, out of which come the clothes she needs to win the prince’s hand in marriage. The film stars Astrid Sempless and Cengiz Al as Cinderella and the Prince, is directed by Cecile Mosli, and has an original score by the outstanding Norwegian composer Gaute Storaas.

As one might expect for a wintry variation in the Cinderella story, Tre Nøtter Til Askepott is a beautiful fantasy score full of lush orchestrations, pretty themes, wondrous classical waltzes and dances, and light magical accents which give it a sparkling, frost-like sheen. The score is performed by the Bratislava Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Hernando Rico, and they bring Storaas’s beautiful melodies to life. Like some of his earlier scores – notably Birkebeinerne, Dyrene i Hakkebakkeskogen, and Halvdan Viking – some of Storaas’s music also appears to be influenced by Nordic folk music, and makes use of traditional instruments, notably the classic and immediately recognizable hardanger fiddle.

The hardanger anchors the opening cue, “Ser Dere Meg,” and appears prominently later in several cues, including the penultimate cue “Frieri,” but there is much more to the score than that. “Hastverk” is a lively scherzo that accompanies young Askepott as she carries out her daily chores. “Kongefølget” marks the first appearance of the pompous march that acts as recurring identity for the royal family, the prince’s parents. “Ingen Feier” uses a combination of fiddle, gentle woodwinds, and music box chimes to illustrate Askepott’s sadness at being told she will not be able to attend the royal ball. “Kappridning” is a lovely, open, free-ranging theme that captures the exhilaration of riding horses. “Geniet I Arbeid” is out and out comedy, with slurred jazzy brass and prancing, lilting woodwinds that have a touch of Tchaikovsky to them.

However, once the magic starts appearing in Askepott’s life – remember, not from a fairy godmother, but from a trio of enchanted nuts – so too Storaas’s music adopts a tone of whimsy and charm. “Nordlys” – the Northern Lights – is full of a sense of grandeur and wonder, including some spiritual-sounding female vocals. “Mus På Ville Veier” is a helter-skelter action piece, “Ut På Jakt” has a tone of slightly ostentatious pageantry, “Kjole For Ballets Dronning” is wry and quirky, and “De Gode Hjelperne” is a flight of fancy that uses dancing, twittering woodwinds to excellent effect, while Askepott’s sumptuous final transformation sequence – “Kjole Med Slør (Andre Nøtt)” – has a chorus behind the orchestra to give it some real dramatic weight and emotional depth.

Finally, when Askepott meets the Prince at the ball, Storaas brings out his most romantic orchestral tones, and the score just shines. Cues like “Den Mystiske Mesterskytteren,” “Askepotts Store Entré,” and especially “Skal Vi Danse?” are just beautiful. “Flukt” and “Hjemtur” – during which, as we know, Askepott must flee the ball at midnight – are underpinned with a sense of sadness and desperation which is quite palpable. “Prøve Sko” and “Sledejakt,” which underscore the prince’s desperate search for the owner of some abandoned footwear, are surprisingly dark and brooding action sequences full of churning strings, heraldic horns, and powerful rhythmic ideas. Eventually it all builds up the lovely finale in “Dere Trenger Ikke Lete Lenger,” which uses the hardanger and pennywhistles in prominent ways, and has a real epic sweep in its conclusion.

Every time I hear a new score by Gaute Storaas, I’m impressed by his range, his thematic content, his dramatic power, and Tre Nøtter Til Askepott. If you’ve ever wanted to hear a charming orchestral fairytale score sprinkled with a little Nordic folk music and snowy glitter, then I recommend checking this one out. The score is available to stream through Apple Music, Spotify, and various other online vendors, but unfortunately there appears to be no physical CD release at this time.

Track Listing: 1. Ser Dere Meg? (2:38), 2. Hastverk (1:33), 3. Kongefølget (1:22), 4. Ingen Feier (1:47), 5. Snøball (0:45), 6. Kappridning (1:23), 7. Kongeparet Drar (1:27), 8. Kom Tilbake (1:11), 9. Nordlys (1:56), 10. Bytur (1:16), 11. Geniet I Arbeid (1:50), 12. Mus På Ville Veier (1:13), 13. Ingen Jeger (1:28), 14. Ut På Jakt (1:22), 15. En Listig Fjellvandrer (1:36), 16. Den Mystiske Mesterskytteren (2:14), 17. Stemor (1:44), 18. Kjole For Ballets Dronning (1:44), 19. De Gode Hjelperne (2:28), 20. Kjole Med Slør (Andre Nøtt) (1:45), 21. Askepotts Store Entré (2:33), 22. Skal Vi Danse? (3:30), 23. Flukt (1:26), 24. Hjemtur (5:10), 25. Prøve Sko (4:51), 26. Sledejakt (2:01), 27. Stemors Siste Sprell (1:27), 28. Opp Fra Dypet (0:49), 29. Frieri (1:19), 30. Dere Trenger Ikke Lete Lenger (3:32). Storm Films, 58 minutes 29 seconds.

  1. André
    January 9, 2022 at 12:11 pm

    Great recommendations, thanks!

  1. January 21, 2022 at 9:00 am

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