By Charlie Brigden
The great joy of listening to new music – especially film scores, where similarity is often inherent – is finding something you truly adore from the first bars. JOHN CARTER is perhaps the score where this previously happened the most profoundly, with the gorgeous statement of Carter’s theme along with the otherworldly vocal instantly making me fall in love. You can add Abel Korzeniowski’s ROMEO & JULIET to this.
So, Willy Shakespeare has struck again and his famous play of star-crossed lovers has yet again been made into a movie. By all accounts, it’s a terrible movie and I admit I’m not going to bother even watching it. But then, all versions really suffer compared to Franco Zefferelli’s excellent 1968 version, which coincidentally had one of the greatest romantic scores ever created in Nino Rota’s. So, a bit of a hard act to follow.
Now at first I wasn’t going to even try and compare it to the Rota score, not only because it’s a bit stupid but also because that score has a special place in my heart that would place unfair expectations on Korzeniowski. But still, wow. So while I’m still not going to compare it to Rota, I will say it is a brilliant successor to that score, both spiritually and in terms of quality. Now let us not speaketh of Rota again, or at least until I’ve finished this review.
Like I mentioned earlier, ROMEO & JULIET draws you in from the beginning, with delicate piano mingling with swirling strings in ‘Juliet’s Dream’. There’s an immediate sense of tradition here, setting the scene for what is a very classical score, appropriately given the film’s attempt to shy away from the more contemporary form Baz Lurhmann’s version. But this is certainly one of the score’s strengths, it’s absolutely honest from the first note about what kind of score it is. You have to accept it for what it is.
And what it is, well, is incredible. What’s great about Korzeniowski’s music is how narratively-focused it is, how well it tells a story musically. Even given the mostly-thematic nature of contemporary film scores, it’s not easy to listen to a score and think “yeah, I know what’s happening here”, even with a well-trod story like R&J. The first half is all sunshine and puppies, with some terrific piano and string work such as ‘Forbidden Love’, which has a wonderful soaring string melody that gives way to an even more wonderful soaring string melody, the love motif.
‘Trooping With Crows’ is a great waltz, while ‘First Kiss’ is a great musical illustration of young love, with delicate and touching piano. It’s almost awkward, but it slowly swells into a beautiful romantic movement, with a slight tinge of darkness, a hint of the tragedy to come. It starts getting darker still with ‘Wedding Vows’, where an amazing solo voice segues to foreboding strings, and this follows with the tense and urgent ”Fortune’s Fool’, where a more serious female chorus recalls Danny Elfman’s BATMAN.
More tension is clear in ‘From Ancient Grudge’, where virtuoso strings and sobering brass give a sense of serious movement, or as my notes state, ‘bad shit’s going down’. ‘Death Is My Heir’ has a beautiful piano segue to a big string swell, while ‘Tempt Not A Desperate Man’ uses frenetic strings and powerful brass to build towards a fatal end, leading to the centrepiece of the score, ‘The Crypt Parts 1 and 2’. Running over nine minutes in total, these two cues are utterly representative of how great this score is in both emotional and musical quality.
Part 1 starts with uncomfortably long strings and sparse piano, leading to a sense of discovery underscored with a beautiful female chorus. It’s very tender, and the tragedy is almost understated at first, as it moves into a high string movement before stepping back slightly to lead to Part 2’s reflective low strings, only to segue into the love motif. It’s a great moment, foreshadowing with brief quotes in the lower registers before opening up into a wonderfully searching rendition of the motif for its finale.
‘Eternal Love’ acts as a coda for the score, returning to the solo female voice and finishing with a final statement of the love motif on a slightly unresolved note, although no less satisfying for that. But it’s a wonderful wrap-up to what really is an incredible score. I absolutely cannot praise Korzeniowski’s music enough, to the point where I’m trying not to gush. But it’s a beautiful work, infused with as much passion and emotion that you could expect from the greatest love story ever written.
I’ll shut up now, just buy it.
ROMEO & JULIET is available now from Sony Classical.