Summer in February (Benjamin Wallfisch)

Final Musings: Benjamin Wallfisch’s romantic score pays fine tribute to his former mentor, Dario Marianelli. What we have hear is a lush, elegant work that builds off of familiar elements in music to express its story. It might fall short on expectations for some, but is definitely one of the more memorable highlights of its year.

Summer in February is one of those British period dramas of the post-Ivory Merchant world, following yet another tragic love triangle. But as recycled a concept it is, people clearly haven’t gotten it sick of it yet. With the success of Downtown Abbey, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see films like this pop up. The production even thought it fit to cast Dan Stevens in what is essentially the same role he played in the popular British soap opera. But aside from the serene landscapes and the chemistry between the actors, there’s nothing much that keeps this from being your average Sunday TV movie, for those who missed their soap.

Well, perhaps with one exception. Film music fans get the music, one of the film’s few redeeming factors. While Benjamin Wallfisch has yet to make his big splash in the film music game, his reputation still precedes him. Hailing from a line of musicians, the British composer established himself from firm classical roots. He went on to score several projects ranging from outstanding swashbuckling music for a stage production of Peter Pan to more modern works like Conquest 1453. But perhaps what he is most known for was his apprenticeship under famed Italian composer, Dario Marianelli, for whom he orchestrated many hit scores (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement and Jane Eyre to name a few). This was likely the most influential phase for his career, for this score shows it and may be seen perhaps as his love letter to his former mentor.

The score is a lush work which has Marianelli written all over it, but without overwhelming Wallfisch’s personal voice. It employs a standard orchestra, relying heavily on strings, some woodwinds for colour and famed pianist Yuja Wang, whose name is basically what’s being used to sell the work.

Wallfisch scores the picture as one might expect for such a film, relying on an inventory of various emotional hues and colours to support the different characters and locations. Of course the primary device composers use to reinforce this concept is the use of themes, of which this score has a good bunch. Wallfisch assigns the Lanorma theme as the principal idea of the score. It’s meant to reflect the beautifully painted landscapes of the film, a bright optimistic melody to portray the picturesque pastures of Cornwall. The opening bars  do seem to build off of Hans Zimmer’s own lovely theme for Beyond Rangoon, but it goes on to become its own thing. By convention, we hear this idea manipulated over the course of the score from its thoughtful debut in “Lanorma”, to its tortured appearance at the end of “Cyanide”. Of particular note is its grand moment in the spotlight in “The Races”, a cue that clearly takes after Marianelli’s work in Pride and Prejudice (“Your Hands Are Cold” to be precise) but with Yuja Wang’s impressive runs driving the music forwards.

The real treat of the score is the music written for both Gilbert and Florence. Gilbert’s Theme is a love theme written in true Marianelli fashion. A simple melodic line on top, with elegantly crafted arpeggios carried out by the cellos, peaking through the layers to really bring out that yearning quality. Florence’s Theme is arguably the most attractive major idea at play in the story (befitting for the center of the love triangle). The quiet woman first pokes her head with a very fragile violin solo in “Mirror”. Sculpted out of alternating minor and major progressions in an intoxicatingly bittersweet way. It excels due to its heartache, the same musical heartache that his mentor became famous for. It’s impressive, hearing the beautiful tune rise from humble beginnings to melodramatic heights of the crashing seas in “The Storm”, as Yuja rambles on in the background until the violin returns to mark closure and mourn for her solitude. Of note is also Siren’s Lullaby, sung by a solo vocalist, it’s one of the strongest ideas in the score, but it’s appearances are regrettably few. A Celtic folk-tune like melody that has echoes of “Scarborough Fair” is well-integrated into an orchestral setting in “Siren’s Lullaby”, using the Lanorma theme in a contrapuntal fashion.  There are other recurring motives, and Wallfisch develops his various accompaniment devices intelligently, beautifully climaxing the score with all of its major themes in “Gilbert’s Return”.

It really is an enjoyable score that this reviewer likes to see as a lovely tribute to one of the best when it comes to period pieces. Yet despite its many assets, there’s something missing which makes it come across as a rather straightforward product. Wallfisch may use the maestro’s techniques masterfully, but he never reaches the composer’s level of depth and resonance. To his credit, he certainly gets close in cues like “Gilbert’s Return”. But where Marianelli is capable of taking a simple 3 note theme in Jane Eyre and adding incredible layers of complexity to it, Wallfisch just plays it straight, addressing only the basic emotions of what’s on screen. It’s done elegantly, but not with as much thought for the “intellectual” to enjoy. It’s interesting to see Jack Liebeck credited for the violin solos here, of which there are few to begin with. The virtuoso’s parts here are simply no match for his work on Jane Eyre, but that remains a questionable comparison considering the latter is a violin-based score. More disappointing however, is the role of Yuja Wang’s technical prowess. Wallfisch uses her with a heavy hand, oftentimes just writing off runs to accompany swelling music. Which is impressive at times, but doesn’t integrate all that well with the ensemble and lacks subtlety. For this, one can’t help but look back at how Marianelli utilized renowned French pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet in his past works. A prime example is the score for Atonement, where the piano is an essential colour to the fabric of the work, but never threatens to overwhelm the whole.

The comparison to Marianelli is not done to point fingers at Benjamin of course, for what we hear is his personal voice shining through familiar techniques. The parallels are being drawn simply to help illustrate what works and what doesn’t. As it stands, Summer in February is indeed a wonderful score and earns a heartfelt recommendation as one of the souvenirs of 2013.

Rating:  * * * *


One Comment on “Summer in February (Benjamin Wallfisch)”

  1. Glad to have you back and in fine form! I need to give this score another listen, only heard it once, and found it to be lovely, but like you said, missing something to make it really memorable, I’m sure repeated listens will change that a bit.

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