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CD Review: Camille Claudel

Camille Claudel: Film Music Volume 2 (1987) *****


Sinfonia CFY-002

14 tracks- 49:42

Film scores have always been regarded by the classical music establishment as the lesser offspring of orchestral concert music. This viewpoint has even been perpetuated through the annals of academia. Their main charge is that the music cannot stand on its own two feet away from its source. Of any current composer writing for mainstream film, Gabriel Yared signifies a completely opposing force to the above sentiments. Working fluently in pure music language and employing a myriad of traditional music techniques, Yared's many works encompass an interesting dichotomy of form and function. While his film music perfectly underscores its dramatic counterpart, it has a structure that works equally well away from the narrative, its musical construction so deft that it operates like absolute music.

Yared's score to the 1987 film Camille Claudel, recently released as part of an ongoing series of works from the composer's canon on the Sinfonia label, exemplifies this fusion of complex, cogent orchestral writing with an overwhelming sense of emotion and drama. As the composer recounts in the detailed and informative liner notes, he created two principal themes for the score. At the time, he had been studying the 1st movement of Mahler's 10th Symphony, Schoenberg's Transfigured Night and Richard Strauss' Metamorphoses and as such employed the rich late 19th century/early 20th century harmonic dictums toward this score.

Writting for large string orchestra, string sextet and quartet, harp and percussion, Yared further explains that he chose to eliminate brass and winds from his tonal palette as the sonorities he was looking for could only be articulated by strings. The result is a haunting and challenging score.

The introductory theme presented in Camille is an ascending melody that serves as the foundation on which counterlines are built. Interestingly, the way Yared constructed this theme results in a fascinating emotional duality. Its harmonic tapestry allows the theme to be perceived as elation and devastation with its blurring of major and minor keys, a staple of Mahler's compositional tendencies. The composer further extends this ideology by contrasting expansive string passages with smaller string sections. There is at once a sense of overwhelming passion and quiet desperation. And because Yared limited himself to string sonorities, much of the variety in the music is achieved through melodic and harmonic devices. There are also clever rhythmic changes infused into the music, as reflected in the opening track, wherein the music develops into a scherzo with the flowing theme played by the violins contrasted with the short celli passages.
"Rodin," the following track, presents a more ominous theme. An alternating chromatic figure in the double basses creates an uneasy passacaglia that supports violin lines that enter in canonic manner, all playing around the tonal center much like Bartók's fugal section in his Music for String Percussion and Celeste. The visceral effect of this music creates one of dread and tragedy. But there is still a strangely dark romanticism about this music.
Yared uses a multiplicity of techniques in the strings that result in a broad range of emotional responses. Menacing bass pizzicatos, coloristic tremolos, emotive legatos, percussive col legnos, kinetic arcos, and violent slicing portamentos abound throughout this soundtrack. And the emphasis on harmonic extensions and chromatic inner lines aid in creating this effusive work.

It's not really possible to point out specific noteworthy tracks on Camille Claudel. Even after repeated listens, the score continues to function as a singular work. The breaks in between tracks operate like breaks in between movements of a symphony. The duality mentioned earlier pervades throughout the work. In one passage, there is complete tonal lyricism, while in others, harmonic ambiguity. There are elated highs and sullen lows, sometimes separated by a mere few measures. It is to his credit that Yared reconciles these two opposing forces so masterfully within this work.

As classical aficionados would claim, there are a lot of fast-food scores churned out of Hollywood. They taste good but represent empty calories. If this metaphor is true than Yared's Camille Claudel is a sumptuous banquet of the finest foods and ingredients one could savor indefinitely. It is a feast for the ears and for soul. Highly recommended.     -- David Coscina

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