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The Demons of St Petersburg
  • Composed by Ennio Morricone
  • KeepMoving Records / 2014 / 58m

The life of Fyodor Dostoyevsky is as remarkable a story as his celebrated novels (including Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov).  Sentenced to death in 1849 after his first novel was published, he was given a last minute reprieve by Tsar Nicholas I and sent instead to a labour camp in Siberia, where he suffered frequent epileptic fits.  Upon his release he developed a gambling addiction and was reduced to begging in order to pay for it.  Meanwhile, he was growing his reputation as a writer (and now of course is amongst the most-lauded there has ever been).  It is not surprising that there have been many biographical films about Dostoyevsky, the most recent being the 2008 Italian film The Demons of St Petersburg, directed by Giuliano Montaldo.

Montaldo’s collaboration with the legendary Ennio Morricone began on The Battle of Algiers, on which Montaldo served as second unit director; and went on to cover a dozen films, leading to some celebrated scores, including the iconic Saccho and Vanzetti and the stunning Marco Polo.  The Demons of St Petersburg is the last of their films together (for now, at least – both men are in their 80s but still working!) – Morricone’s son Andrea scored Montaldo’s most recent film, L’Industriale.

Ennio Morricone

Ennio Morricone

This score is a complex psychological portrait of Dostoyevsky, a thoughtful and intellectual work that showcases its composer’s extraordinary skill, even if it is (obviously) not the kind of crowd-pleasing romantic style that dominated this period of Morricone’s career.  The themes here go inside the mind and often reveal darkness and conflict as well as brilliance.  The album’s opening track, “New Attack”, includes a militaristic theme which is actually melodic and rather memorable, even though it is used in the film to convey some terrible acts.

The most attractive theme is that heard in in the first piece called “Painful Love” (the second explores far darker material), representing the relationship between the author and a stenographer he hires to help him write a novel very quickly so he can raise some much-needed funds.  It is not romantic so much as reflective of a solid friendship; it’s a lovely theme.  “Siberia” is the other cue that may prove most popular with listeners, including one of the composer’s trademark wordless soprano solos, performed this time by Paola Cecchi.  The thematic material heard in the track is familiar from elsewhere in the score, but has a completely different feel with the vocal – like a haunting portrayal of a haunted landscape.

Suspense music dominates the score – “A Story” is remarkably unsettling and uncomfortable.  While challenging, it doesn’t enter the atonal territory that this composer often explores for such music; and indeed, because that’s true of the score as a whole, it offers considerable rewards.  “For Three” is a delightful little piece of action music, full of thrilling little orchestral vignettes.  Perhaps the highlight comes with the lengthy end title piece, the nine-minute “For My Father”, which develops the more attractive melodic material from the score into a compelling suite, the string writing in particular having an elegance and beauty which is so typical of this most gifted of film composers (and there’s a welcome return for Cecchi’s vocal).  The cue’s second half, with its hypnotic strings, plaintive trumpet solo and distant choir, is vintage Morricone.

This is most certainly not one of those immediately-attractive Morricone scores that I don’t hesitate to recommend to a wider listenership; it is a very challenging work.  But really delving into it reveals such complexities of thinking, such finely-worked emotions, it casts quite a spell.  In common with frustratingly many of the composer’s scores over the last decade or so, it appeared destined to remain unreleased, but the Russian label KeepMoving Records has managed to provide an excellent release, sequenced by the composer (for an intended album at the time of the film).  It is wonderful that a Morricone album has received a set of such thoughtful liner notes as Gergely Hubai’s (so many of his albums, even the expansions, have either no notes at all, or just a brief description of the film).  Hopefully the album will prove to be a success and the label will be inspired to release a few more of the composer’s more recent scores which are surely worthy of exploration.  Those who appreciate depth to their music will find much to appreciate here.

Rating: **** | |

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  1. Elfenthalsmith (Reply) on Monday 3 February, 2014 at 15:29

    Thank you thank you for all the Morricone reviews. He’s awe-inspiring in terms of quantity, quality, diversity and longevity, and it’s great to have so many reviews of lesser-known scores of his on your website.

  2. mastadge (Reply) on Monday 3 February, 2014 at 17:53

    Saint Petersburg used to be Leningrad, and you reviewed this right after you reviewed Stalingrad, and I’m sure there’s some kind of joke or pun here but I can’t quite put my finger on it.