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THE NATIVITY STORY
Great Christmas music cleverly weaves through the ages to rousing conclusion
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
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Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 2006 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.; review copyright (c) 2007 James Southall
Apparently The Nativity Story tells the true story of Christmas, though since it doesn't seem to feature Santa Claus or Morecambe and Wise I don't think that can be possible. The film didn't go down particularly well (such a familiar story will often struggle to find an audience, especially if it's told in as traditional a way as this) but still, it's nice to see a film like this come along, even if it will always get blown out of the box office by the fifteenth sequel to Christmas with the Kranks.
It's the perfect project for composer Mychael Danna (whose brother Jeff wrote an excellent score a couple of years ago for The Gospel of John), something of an authority on ancient music. Surprisingly, he takes his influence not really from the music of the middle east, but instead intelligently uses the score to show how music of the day influenced western music through the ages, with the liner notes helpfully giving examples of how the score "evolves" through time as it progresses. It opens with the liturgical hymn "Veni, Veni Emanuel" - but as soon as "Nazareth", Danna is showing off his melodic instincts with a gorgeous theme. And there is no shortage of those - even in the album's more low-key first half, there are plenty of opportunities for the music to soar with beauty - the recorder-led "To Elizabeth" is a particular highlight. There is a tragic quality to "Why Is It Me?" which is also liltingly gorgeous.
Having said that, some of the more abstract cues don't make for particularly interesting listening, and despite the frequent interjections of quality the album does take a while to really get going. The first half is certainly full of fine music, but it doesn't quite move on quickly enough to fully sustain interest, but things pick up considerably in the second half, beginning with (the vaguely Passion of the Christ / Last Temptation of Christ - like) "Census" which leads into the magical "The Journey". "The Shepherd" features an exquisite violin (well, it's not a violin, it's some ancient equivalent) solo which is certainly enough to send a shiver down the spine; "And Thou Bethlehem" begins in much the same way, but then builds and builds until it reaches what a weaker man than me might call "biblical proportions". Hearing this kind of epic, Rozsa-style music from Mychael Danna is one of the more unexpected film music moments of the year, but there is more and more of that kind of old-fashioned, golden age spectacle as the score travels towards its end.
It's not all fun and games, either - there's a genuine drama to "Is There a Place For Us?", a darkness underpinning the awe and wonder. The choral music in "I Bring You Good Tidings" could easily come from Ben-Hur or something - it's unashamedly BIG, and it's somehow wonderfully refreshing to hear the kind of music which hasn't really been heard in films for over four decades! Perhaps the most notable piece is the sweeping "In Rosa Vernat Lilium", a grand spectacle of a piece which is rousing and magnificent.
As well as the ancient melodies Danna incorporates earlier in his score, there's a place for the old standout "Silent Night" in the penultimate track (it sounds a bit odd translated into Latin, but the language of gentlemen isn't used in nearly as many film scores as it should be, so I won't complain). The concluding "Rosa Aeterna Floret" brings the score to a somewhat wistful, lovely close. Despite its slight uneventful first half leading to the suspicion that the album's a little over-long, you can't help but be bowled over by its sheer exuberance at times. It's nice to hear Danna write a score so extrovert while retaining his distinctive touch. Recommended.