The Good, The Bad and the Awkward

The Good, the Bad and the Awkward
Sally Whitwell (pianist)
ABC Classics 476 4898
Reviewed by Barry Walmsley

At first, I picked this CD up and wondered what it was all about… Great music played by a pianist who is one of the fastest evolving personalities in the Australian classical music scene today – a performer who cannot be described as one dimensional at all. So, instantly there was intrigue.

Recordings which grab you with titles such as this one are sure to be successful. But Whitwell’s intelligence in devising an anthology of music which, on the surface may not bear any relationship to each other, shows incredible courage and passionate about what she loves, or what inspires her.

This is a disc which is a unique tribute to film characters to whom she finds an attraction, most importantly the most-loved of all French films, Amelie (with its five beautiful and simply stated pieces by Yann Tiersen).

“I started thinking about why I feel so attached to the film and particularly to her (Amelie), how I identify with her and feel her joys and sorrows so intensely. It’s all about being a bit socially awkward, about how awkward people eventually can find their place in the world, can ultimately triumph. Here was an experience I wanted to share,” said Whitwell.

So it is with this dedication and passion that performer meets music.

Rota’s Gelsomina (from La Strada) uses melodica and toy piano and conjures an image instantly, as does Badalamenti’s L’Execution (from The City of Lost Children). Later, Badalamenti’s Falling (from Twin Peaks) is a slow moving piece which will appeal to the melancholic at heart.

Nyman’s Candlefire (from The Diary of Anne Frank) is so poignant with its simplicity of melodic theme and harmonic gesture, that it is a real tear-jerker. Of course, a work from The Piano cannot be ignored from such a disc, and here Big My Secret conveys the originality of this great film composer.

Satie’s Gnossienne No 1 (as used in The Painted Veil) is intriguing as is all of Satie’s piano music. The French-inspired Delicatessen features music by D’Alessio using piano, toy piano and melodica. The Hours, a film featuring Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore and based on the Virginia Woolf novel Mrs Dalloway, uses Philip Glass pieces – and this piano music doesn’t disappoint (as it seemingly contains more melodic material than expected!). Lebanese composer Gabriel Yared is a new discovery with his C’est le vent, Betty (from Betty Blue), and its repeated knocking against a quirky but joyous fluency. Elena Kats-Chernin’s Russian Rag (as used in the Australian animated film Mary and Max) changes in mood from the slow opening to a more fluid section, and returns to a reflective moment, which masks the rag influence momentarily.

The Portrait of a Lady (based on Henry James’s novel of the same name) uses the music of Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat, D899, which Whitwell gives the necessary elegance and brooding drama. Other uses of classical music may cause surprise, such as the adaptation of Delibes’s Flower Duet in the vampire movie The Hunger, Debussy’s Clair de lune (Ocean’s Eleven), Haydn’s Adagio e cantabile from Piano Sonata in E flat (from Interview with the Vampire), and JS Bach’s Prelude No 1 (Bk 1) as used in Bagdad Café (the Preludes are used more in this film, as one of the characters plays them throughout).

Distinctive for his authentic voice in film composition is Ennio Morricone, and here The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (from the film of the same name) employs Whitwell performing harpsichord, melodica, recorder and recording her own voice, in what is a great realisation of a film classic.

This was such an interesting collection of music showing the wealth of material set for film. Some of the selections and their use in film are so intriguing that I have to now go out and deliberately watch or re-watch some films to confirm how this music has actually been used to support the visual image and dramatic content.

Whitwell’s choices show an obvious connection with French music, minimalist orientations, vampire films and strong female story lines.

This music would be richly rewarding for any student. Whitwell has collected some of the best film repertoire for piano. As well, this disc would be a valuable addition to a school teacher’s collection for the teaching of Music and the Media.

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