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Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
  • Composed by Rachel Portman
  • Sony Masterworks / 2011 / 47:16

Based on the very popular novel by Lisa See, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is about a pair of women, tracing their lives from childhood in 19th century China.  They must overcome the difficulties presented by all of the ancient customs they are expected to observe, including the practice of foot-binding.  It hasn’t been reviewed particularly well, but I’m sure there’s a built-in audience there from those who loved the book so it will probably attract a following when released on DVD.  It marks the fourth collaboration between director Wayne Wang and composer Rachel Portman – the collaboration began in 1993 with The Joy Luck Club, one of her finest works.

To be honest, I think Portman was stuck in a bit of a rut for quite some time until quite recently, delivering competent, often appealing music for various projects but it increasingly felt like she was simply rehashing a fairly limited bag of tricks (to mix metaphors) time after time.  That changed last year with her wonderful Never Let Me Go – arguably her strongest work – and it’s a pleasure to see that she is on top form again for Snow Flower.  In her liner notes, the composer observes that the film threw up a wide tapestry of musical opportunities and she certainly made the most of them.

Rachel Portman

The album begins with the very beautiful main theme.  It is – indeed, the whole score is – in that delightful style heard several times in film music over the years, with a western view of eastern music, the standard orchestra augmented by erhu, pipa and ethnic flutes.  The opening theme – oft-repeated through the album, it has to be said – blends all this together in the most delightful, swoony way.  Along with the Chinese elements, Portman makes good use of violin, cello and harp.  There are at least two other excellent themes – the piano-led, sweet-as-anything one heard first in “Nina Passes Note” is particularly strong.

There are times when the music takes a darker turn, as would be expected in the score for a film such as this, but even here Portman somehow imbues it with a great beauty.  The strings become more strained, there are even some electronics thrown in which are used to generate a slightly unsettling feeling, but never does the album become unattractive in any way.  Indeed, taken all together, it paints a pretty vivid picture and does something which most of the best film scores do, tells a powerful story through music – even if you haven’t seen the film (and few have), it’s the kind of music which is bound to conjure images in the listener’s mind to tell its own story.  Particularly powerful is the sense of longing the music almost constantly evokes.

I know it’s a different country, but there are certainly similarities in feeling here between Snow Flower and John Williams’s magnificent Memoirs of a Geisha.  Not in any melodies, but in the beauty and the deftness.  Portman isn’t Williams and so this isn’t quite that strong, but it’s hard to imagine that many fans of Geisha would not also like this.  (Hard to imagine that there are many that aren’t fans of Geisha, too.)  This is a very strong album, right up there with Portman’s best, and is a must-buy for any fans of her music or of this east-meets-west symphonic style.  ****

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