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Ask the River
  • Composed by Rachel Portman
  • Node Records / 54m

There are so few female film composers for whatever reason, they’re all trailblazers in some way, but Rachel Portman is even more of a trailblazer than most, having been the first woman to win an Oscar for original score and scored a string of high-profile movies especially in the 1990s and early 2000s.

She’s often been pigeonholed though – romantic comedies, period dramas – absurdly shunned when filmmakers think they need “masculine” music, as if a woman couldn’t score an action scene (it never, ever works the other way round – nobody’s ever seemed to have a problem asking a man to write a theme for a female character). But Portman has shown that there is much more to her than just that “light” music for the predictable genres when she has been given the opportunity to do so.

Rachel Portman

In more recent years she has combined her film music with other music, having written an opera and a musical – and more recently has sought projects where she can express her passion for environmental issues, such as a recent piece for children’s choir quoting the words of Greta Thunberg. This album, Ask the River, is described by the composer as being about love – love of the natural world, and of its people.

The album is a series of short pieces for piano (played by Portman herself – the first time she has ever done so on a recording), cello (Caroline Dale) and violin (Clio Gould). It is uniformly calm and beautiful – while the track titles (“Leaves and Trees”, “Apple Tree”, “Longing for Spring”) are highly evocative themselves, those are precisely the images that would be conjured up while listening even without the prompting of the words.

There is a meditative quality to the music throughout that is so impressive – lying out in the garden listening to this through headphones, close your eyes and you are transported somewhere else – the gradual shifting of the harmonic progressions from one piece to the next perfectly conveys the sense of things changing, evolving slightly – and before you know it an hour as gone by and the album’s final piece has brought things back full circle to where things began.

While it is straightforward enough to generate an intimate feel if you’re only writing for three instruments, what takes skill is generating real depth – and while the music remains relatively simple throughout, that depth is there – there is real feeling here, and those feelings of a river flowing calmly by, the seasons gradually changing, birds coming to the trees and going, old lives moving on and new ones springing up – that’s not easy to achieve.

Portman’s written great music in the past but to my mind Ask the River is her singular achievement – it is so fluid, so colourful and above all so beautiful – clearly deeply personal, I find it to be just as deeply moving. With the world in such turmoil, how wonderful to find an antidote as effective as this album. Portman’s own words (from an interview with Jon Burlingame in Variety) say it all – “My hope [for the album] would be, in this time, comfort. Reflection. If it could bring a bit of what inspired me, nature, the earth, into someone’s home. In these particular circumstances, if they’re having a hard time, shut indoors, I hope that it could take them to a different place.” That is precisely what it does.

Rating: ***** | |

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  1. dominique (Reply) on Wednesday 17 June, 2020 at 10:22

    beautiful review of a beautiful score!
    thank you, james!

  2. CK (Reply) on Thursday 3 September, 2020 at 20:23

    Thanks for making me aware of this album, James. While I have grown weary of Portman’s “stubborn” style, this one actually moved and calmed me. So definitely some kudos for that.