English composer Rachel Portman is best known for her many gorgeous film scores, including the music for such blockbusters as Chocolat, The Cider House Rules, The Duchess and The Lake House.
Portman’s latest musical project is Ask the River, a self-contained CD of piano-led instrumental reflections on the natural world, with an accompanying book from Chester Music delivering solo piano versions of all 13 tracks, the subject of this review.
According to the composer,
“I wrote this collection of pieces throughout 2019. They are the fruit of many years spent being immersed in nature. What can be more inspiring than the green shoots of new beech leaves appearing in the woods with the dappling light reflected in the spring breeze?
These pieces are a personal reflection on the beauty of the earth around us – the trees, flora, rivers, birds, animals and all her gifts to us. I hope you enjoy exploring them as much as I loved being inspired by the natural world.”
Explore them we shall…
A Natural World of Music
It will surprise few to discover that the music here is essentially cinematic in scope, and cut from the same cloth as the easy-going “new classical” style beloved by Classic fm listeners.
Those anticipating virtuosic or impressionistic portrayals of the breathtaking landscapes of the Serengeti, Mount Fuji or the glaciers of the Antarctic will find instead a more accessible, intimate connection with the natural world as evidenced in these piece titles:
- leaves and trees
- a gift
- much loved
- ask the river
- still here
- apple tree
- longing for spring
- the summer day
- way home
There’s a gentle, meandering spirit throughout the whole album, Portman avoiding the more frenzied angst that can easily rear its post-minimal head in this style of music. She beautifully evokes stillness, mindful reflection, and an impetus for a wholly natural communion.
The pieces here have an organic flow rather than being written in strophic blocks; overall, they owe far more to the spirit of classical music than they do to contemporary pop songs.
Curated by the Composer
We are tellingly told that the arrangements in the book were “curated by Rachel Portman herself”, a point which confirms these as the authoritative compositions, definitive arrangements rather than an anonymous attempt by the publishers (as can sometimes happen).
The added importance of this is revealed when listening to the recorded album, on which the piano is joined for several tracks by string players, solo and ensemble. Portman’s piano solo arrangements include as much as possible of the sonic information of the originals, which at times adds technical challenge and leads to surprising changes of register.
The texture, overall, is made up of broken chord and arpeggio patterns in one or both hands, harmonies revealed with the help of the sustain pedal. Only rarely does the music exceed two voices to include chords or more complex piano writing, flight being a particularly notable exception (and thus one of the harder pieces to play).
Many of the pieces have a sober, even melancholy introspection, but as the album progresses the overall tone is lighter. Apple tree is particularly delicious, while longing for spring is my personal favourite of the collection.
In terms of level, I would describe these pieces as early advanced (around UK Grades 6-7) meaning that they are a little more difficult than some of the artist collections by Einaudi, Hauschka and Ola Gjeilo that I’ve recently reviewed.
Chester Music have done a fine job of delivering a lovely publication of this music. Produced in a standard format and with a high glossy cover, the book has a generous 72 pages within, printed on white paper.
In addition to the 13 pieces, the book includes regular full page illustrations throughout. These are a mix of grayscale nature photographs to match the mood of the music, and facsimiles of the original manuscript scores hand-written by Portman herself (beautifully neatly, I might add). A reminder, should one be needed, that in the real world composers often still use a pencil!
The notation is crisp, and I found the music font used here pleasingly readable. The spacing is good too, although the page turns aren’t always ideally located. No pedalling indications or fingering suggestions are included.
Anyone wanting to move on from Einaudi to music with a similarly contemporary vibe but more nuance will find that these consummately composed pieces offer a beautiful and evocative sound world, at once accessible, but with plenty of personality.
One of 2020’s best “new classical” releases, this is not simply a soundtrack in search of a movie. In a year which has seen many of us compelled to live less frenetic, more localised lives, I suspect that many will find Portman’s latest music gives serene expression to both our outer and inner worlds.
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