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CD Reviews 6/1/00

Electric Shadows ****


Teldec 0630-17114-2

13 tracks - 77:07

"Electric Shadows," a literal translation of the Chinese word for "film," is a compilation album of top Chinese film composer Zhao Jiping's most lauded work from 1990 to 1997. Many of the selections (excerpted from six different films) were reworked specifically for this album, which was recorded by the China Symphony Orchestra and China Symphony Chorus.

Zhao Jiping incorporates Chinese folk ideas and a vast array of traditional instruments, but it's his style that makes his music so identifiable. He often employs a texture of slow-moving, chordal (with parallel 4ths) string pads -- instantly recognizable as it's transformed from one score to the next. Jiping's "big" themes are all similar in character, using an old school formula of rising french horn counterlines underneath dramatic, romantic high string melodies. These themes tend to sound impressionistic and even golden age Hollywood in style. But, as thick as these passages can be, Jiping's music is seldom heavy or cluttered. He emphasizes solo instruments (from ethnic to synthesized to normal acoustic) and chamber settings, alternating these sections with those for fuller orchestra.

To Live, the first work excerpted on "Electric Shadows," combines ethnic instruments like the erh-hu with a high, ethereal synth sound. This pairing makes the music sound a bit like Jerry Goldsmith (not to mention the pentatonic, folk-like melodies). Sunbird has similar sections as Jiping continually takes his time writing intimate, uncluttered music -- even if this comes across as boring to some. These selections also have large doses of impressionism and the main theme almost sounds like it escaped from Elmer Bernstein's catalogue. (There's also a section in here that sounds like Chinese Mars Attacks!) Judou emphasizes the xun, a flute-like instrument, for most of the score (intimacy) but there is percussion and a singing little girl to add color. Farewell My Concubine, a historical drama, has to cover a lot of ground -- at this point in the album, if you're unfamiliar with Jiping's work, it's sure to start taking shape. There have been similar versions of most of the important elements in this score scattered throughout the aforementioned entries. Red Firecracker, Green Firecracker is more of the same, but Raise the Red Lantern is a nice change of pace because it's almost entirely vocal-driven.

"Electric Shadows" is a well presented yellow album with extensive notes by Executive Producer Wolfgang Mohr. The performances are more than adequate and the music itself (despite the extremely long running time) is memorable, cohesive and worth seeking out, especially if you're interested in Jiping or the dominating sound in modern Chinese cinema. -- Jesus Weinstein

Love's Labours Lost ***

Patrick Doyle

Sony Classical SK 89004

18 tracks - 58:03

Love's Labours Lost is Kenneth Branagh's seventh film as director, and his fourth cinematic adaptation of a play by William Shakespeare. In one of the more creative and enigmatic interpretations of one of the Bard's plays, Branagh takes Love's Labours Lost, a rarely performed, relatively superficial comedy written around 1594, and injects popular 1930s and '40s standards into its richly poetic language. Whether or not Branagh's experiment proves successful won't be entirely clear to American audiences until the film debuts in U.S. cinemas on June 2 (it opened in Britain on March 31), and despite its lovely melodies and amusing vocal performances, the soundtrack doesn't serve as much of a hint.

Continuing his fine collaboration with the British director, Patrick Doyle both arranges the songs (along with a half-dozen orchestrators) and provides instrumental score for the picture; as always, his work is lush and melodic. The liner notes (by both Doyle and Branagh) reveal the composer's intent to write a grand, romantic bedding for the director's flashly musical numbers, and although just under 30 minutes of score appear on Sony Classical's album, it's more than enough. The title cue begins with a bold fanfare, setting up the entire aesthetic of Doyle's musical (and, very likely, Branagh's visual) approach; Doyle then introduces a beautiful love theme, and Love's Labours Lost proves no exception to the composer's repertoire of soft, exquisite melodies. The nine-minute "'Twelve months and a day...'" cue is also lovely, but Doyle's work becomes most interesting when he lets loose with full-tile, Golden Age-style melodrama, specifically in "Cinetone News" and the closing "Victory."

The plot of Love's Labours Lost is one of Shakespeare's sillier notions (a quartet of friends swear off women, only to fall in love with four of them), and if Branagh were to try and get away with this potentially mismatched musical format, this would be the kind of Shakespeare play in which to do so. Doyle's score becomes most significant to the album because it energizes a series of lazy vocal performances. It's initially difficult to assess the songs success simply because the singers are, for the most part, not professional musical performers -- but most of the singing is serviceable; even Branagh's low-key tenor is not too jarring, and, believe or not, Alicia Silverstone and Matthew Lillard can actually carry a tune.

The real problem with this album is that the songs simply cannot prove enjoyable without their visual accompaniment. Not only is Branagh's camera typically hyperactive, but his casting of non-musical performers insists upon these actors' abilities to make the words more important than the music; once we can actually see them, I would imagine that Geraldine McEwan and Richard Briers' rendition of "The Way You Look Tonight" and Nathan Lane's leading of "There's No Business Like Show Business" will be touching and delightful, respectively. And although the music is the key gimmick of this Shakespearen adaptation, the play, I think, will prove the thing we need to be seeing. -- Brent Andrew Bowles

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