August 1999

The Red Violin - Soundtrack
Sony Classical SK 63010
Released: 1999

by Srajan Ebaen

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

[Reviewed on CD]In the Canadian-made film The Red Violin, currently playing across the US, director François Girard made the unique but masterful choice to portray the title’s odd-lacquered instrument as the movie’s main character. Over the course of three centuries following her born-of-tragedy fashioning by Italian master builder Bussotti of 17th-century Cremona, we observe the violin’s travails in Vienna, then onward to Oxford via an old gypsy trail, then Shanghai and eventually present-day Montreal. There, a high-profile auction house serves as the movie’s central locus from whence, in seamless flashbacks, we time-shift back and forth into the film’s historical chapters, ominously predicted at the story’s onset by an old gypsy’s fortune-telling five-card tarot spread. Through her strings and, slowly battered but eventually restored, body we encounter the various virtuosi who possessed her and were incontrovertibly affected by performing on this mysterious instrument.

It goes without saying that music is the movie’s main ingredient, providing its raison d’être whereby the international locations and short-term appearances of a shifting cast are skillfully connected. The artist commissioned for its score was none other than Musical America’s first Composer of the Year, John Corigliano. He served as the Chicago Symphony’s composer-in-residence from 1987-90 and authored the award-winning, immensely popular The Ghost of Versailles, as well as A Dylan Thomas Trilogy, and his AIDS-crisis response Symphony No. 1. For the score’s instrumental heroine, director Girard approached legendary real-life virtuoso Joshua Bell, who ended up extending his consummate talents by serving also as musical advisor, body double and providing authentic close-up shots of actual score fingering.

An added bonus of Sony Classical’s release of The Red Violin film score is the inclusion of the 18-minute work Chaconne for Violin and Orchestra, Corigliano’s tone-poem meditation on the movie’s thematic material. Adapted for independent-of-the-film concert-hall recital, it allowed the composer to fulfill both his contractual obligation towards the film project -- the actual score -- and enhance the repertoire of the concert violin for ages to come.

Because the movie spans three continents and centuries, Corigliano’s score echoes those earlier Italian and Austrian periods with Bach/Vivaldi-style solo études in the form of passacaglias that contain even the occasional pre-sentient Mozartean gesture. But no European movie about violin virtuosi could be considered complete or factual without reference to the bravura style of Russian and Romanian gypsy primases. Incarnated to perfection by the wild-man character of Frederic Pope, a historical British Sarasate-type scaling the heavens with octave-doubled assaults, breath-taking staccato runs, dual voicing and sinuous glissandi, much of the score’s dramatic passion comes from this elemente tzigane. There’s even an odd-metered, teasing and lilting dance performed, for a moment, by a classic gypsy ensemble of clarinet, cymbalom and double bass.

Throughout the cyclical seasons of the many lives spotlighted along the story’s course, loss, betrayal and death have to occur more than once. One such dramatic moment is musically translated into an awesome cacophony of furiously attacking bows, rosin and horse hairs flying like sweat and all the registers of a full orchestra’s string section, sounding like a cabal of giant insects in the final spasms of death throes.

The sonics of The Red Violin are really quite extraordinary, captured with true 20-bit sound by Sony Classical. A system with superb dynamic tracking ability makes for an awe-inspiring experience here, especially throughout the symphonic Chaconne, which contains challenging peaks of orchestral clashes that will get very loud if the volume setting has been aligned with the earlier violin solos. But without compelling musicianship, sonic considerations remain as empty as a centerfold’s posing, and it is here that The Red Violin really shines. Joshua Bell and the Philharmonia Orchestra under the able baton of Esa-Pekka Salonen have taken John Corigliano’s score and given it wing with a performance that’s at times haunting and hair-raising but always profoundly moving.

Because the movie itself defies worn-out Hollywood clichés and has been written and directed by someone with the true sensibilities of a musician’s soul, you should first encounter the score wedded to the images that provoked it, then go and purchase the CD. It will truly enhance the experience.