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Beyond the Screen

Trailblazing composer Rachel Portman managed to build a hugely successful career in film music in an era when it was even more dominated by men than it is today, become the first female composer to win an Oscar in the process. Her trademark style of charming melodies has graced so many films over the years, and it’s interesting that her career really took off around the same time that the great Georges Delerue left us – his is undoubtedly the film music that hers most resembles, as if she was picking up the mantle from him.

This compilation sees Portman herself playing various themes on solo piano, accompanied by cellist Raphaela Gromes in a handful of cues. The composer notes in the album booklet that she writes all of her music at the piano, and many of her scores have a heavy presence from the instrument, so these arrangements all feel very natural. I imagine her biggest headache came from deciding which ones to leave off, to be honest.

Rachel Portman

While there’s no escaping the fact that a number of the themes are somewhat similar in nature – cut from the same cloth without doubt – the album doesn’t just work, it does so quite spectacularly. The inherent charm of her music comes through in spades in all the original soundtrack recordings – that’s the driving force behind her success – but in these pared-down arrangements perhaps it is even more to the fore. The intimacy of the performance and recording really makes it.

The themes themselves – there’s no point doing a track-by-track analysis because I’d just keep saying the same things – but they’re just stunning really, all of them. It’s natural to think that writing these kinds of uplifting, romantic melodies must be easy – I suspect the truth is that it’s extremely hard. Not just to capture the atmosphere, but do it with an immediate earworm – and do it time and time again, in film after film – it’s so impressive.

From the Oscar-winning Emma through the pastoral charm of The Cider House Rules, the magical atmosphere and comedy of Chocolat, the emotionally bare Still Life, and my two personal favourite Portman themes, One Day and The Duchess – these pieces are so glorious, and hearing them in a new form is like hearing them afresh. And too, some of what may be the lesser-known gems here – the lilting waltz from Their Finest, the exquisite theme from Girl Rising – they’re just as good.

The cello is reserved for the pieces which have a real underlying emotional drama to them – perhaps her finest score, Never Let Me Go, features one of the most emotionally-devastating pieces of film music of our generation, “The Pier”, and it’s so raw and exposed here. Similarly, the theme from Snow Flower and the Secret Fan – another exceptional score – has such richness and depth.

An album of piano arrangements won’t be for everyone, I know that – that enveloping, warm feel you get from her orchestrations is obviously missing – but it’s replaced by a different quality, and this is an album I know I am going to play a lot. Rachel Portman’s such a skilled composer – and a delicate pianist, too – and most of her fans will find this album to be a richly rewarding experience. The elegant beauty and inherent charm that runs through it from start to finish means it will be hard to beat as the film music album of the year.

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  1. John Leggett (Reply) on Saturday 4 March, 2023 at 16:09

    Great review James.

    I’m really looking forward to this compilation release as I have great respect for the wonderful work of Rachel Portman. This is also why I play Debbie Wiseman’s scores so much; just lovely, haunting, emotional and well-composed music to listen to and so expertly crafted.

  2. John Mullin (Reply) on Saturday 4 March, 2023 at 16:33

    I love this review! I had no idea this album existed, but our mutual love of Portman and your endorsement will make it an automatic purchase.