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Dark, rather depressing piece of heavy drama
John Williams's style of composition has matured so much in the 1990s that when he came to score The Phantom Menace earlier in 1999, many people feared he would have lost the ability to return to the child in him; Angela's Ashes, a tale of a young family growing up in Ireland during very hard times, offers the legendary composer another opportunity to do the same, but in an entirely different way. Curiously, Williams seems to have ignored the potential for exploring the child's upbringing with any kind of hint of childlike music, but instead has written one of his darkest, most adult scores ever.
The main theme is perhaps best described as a reworking of ideas from Williams's thirty-year-old Jane Eyre. Unusually for a Williams theme, there is no strong, driving melody, but the piece is divided into a number of subsections, featuring solo parts for piano, harp, violin and flute. Unfortunately, none of these is particularly memorable, though the piece does leave a lasting impression.
The rest of the score either returns to these motifs in the theme, or presents standalone moments for key sequences of the movie, many of which are brilliant. The first of these is "Angela's Prayer", probably the best cue in the whole score, as Williams teases the listener with a series of short melodies; it will surely go down as one of the highlight pieces of 1999.
Angela's Ashes is an absolutely marvellous score, yet another real gem from one of the best composers in the world. Elmer Bernstein is probably the only composer alive who could have written a score as moving and powerful as this for the movie. It is testament to his abilities that, after all this time, Williams is still able to both surprise and amaze the listener; it is a textbook example of how to do this sort of thing. However...
All but two of the cues feature narration from the book. Now, I am a laid-back, unassuming kind of person, and it is very rare indeed that I wish ill on anyone - but may whoever dreamt up the idea of including these forever be plagued by a nasty rash. This CD is ruined by this. A masterpiece is turned into something that is really, really irritating to listen to. The extracts are, I'm sure, marvellous to anyone who has read and enjoyed the book - but to someone who hasn't, and almost certainly never will, they are a total waste of space. If I wanted to hear the music while hearing extracts from the book, I'd go and see the film - that's what it's there for! To include the narration at all is foolish, but to have it actually overrunning the music is criminal.
For the moment, however, the only way to hear this exceptional music is to own this wretched CD - and, therefore, I have no option but to recommend it until such a time as there is a proper release, which will most likely never happen. However, there are untold joys in store for anyone who can get me a copy of this music not accompanied by the narration...
Rating for music *****
Rating for CD **
Total Time 59:02
Sony Classical SK89009
Artwork copyright (c) 1999 Paramount Pictures and Polygram Holdings; review copyright (c) 1999 James Southall