I am not, it has to be said, terribly familiar with Ryuichi Sakamoto's music. He seems to have something of a cult following, but he has created at least one hugely famous piece. Forbidden Colours from Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence is one of those pieces that almost everyone will claim to recognise, but have no idea where it came from. Until receiving this compilation I was one of those people. I half suspected it was from The Last Emperor - right composer at least - but I was not aware that the famous piano riff eventually gave way to a song, performed here by David Sylvian (sounding very much like David Bowie) but after the plaintive piano opening becomes more dramatic, with a large string presence towards the finale of the piece. A few reviews I have read of the film have not been terribly complimentary about Sakamoto's music (but kinder about his acting, for he also stars alongside Bowie), but the song is good, although I think I prefer the instrumental only version. Not sure whether that's because I'm more used to that arrangement, but the vocal (and the performance in this particular instance) makes the whole thing rather heavy, rather than the delicate feel it seems it ought to have.
I managed to stagger my way through most of the film The Last Emperor, but managed to miss the last ten minutes, which was a mite careless I have to admit. The notes give no indication of where the music appears in the film, but it features some of the more stirring sections, which chug along in a Philip Glass kind of way, although not nearly so strictly minimalistic. The only thing I know about Little Buddha is that it stars, rather surprisingly, Keanu Reeves as the latest reincarnation and the only comment about this I wish to add would be to quote Mr Barry Norman who suggested that it should have starred MacCauley Culkin and been called Little Bugger. Quite. Sakamoto does of course lean on Chinese music, but in all honesty, I can't say it sounds any more authentic than any Hollywood composer might have come up with, added to the fact that the opening is essentially Barber's Adagio for Strings. Aimless at times, but pleasant enough.
Wuthering Heights is very much more western in sound; lyrical and romantic, the piece has beauty and yearning, as well as a more distinct dramatic structure than the previous film music efforts. Replica again recalls a more minimalist style, with cycling string patters that build over each other, but are occasionally joined by other sections of the orchestra. An almost jazzy inflection is given with the piano and vibraphone riffs over the top. The curiously titled El Mar Mediterrani (presumably The Mediterranian Sea) was composed for the opening of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, but curiously omitted from the official album of music from those games - the Williams conducted Summon the Heroes album, which also omitted Basil Poledouris' marvellous choral work. The opening is a portentous brass and percussion, but that soon gives way to more ethereal textures onto which is grafted an understated, but noble string theme that builds up to repeat some of the impressive opening material. A somewhat Morricone style subliminal chorus appears from time to time and despite being barely noticeable is effective none the less. Sakamoto seems to let himself go a lot more than during the preceeding cues with brass being noticeable by its general abscence in many of the other selections. El Mar Meditterani is perhaps a fraction long for its own good and in the middle descends into being a bit of a mindless mess of piano and orchestral randomness, a great shame as the best material is striking and rousing.
This album appears to mainly be cobbled together from old albums and performances, several of them live, but the sound always been perfectly good enough. I don't really know what to make of this album, at times I thought it was wonderful, at others I felt it was tedious, but the overall impression is certainly most favourable. I must admit that advance comments from a few other reviewers were not promising, but while it's not turned into a staggeringly impressive surprise, it is am album of generally solid orchestral work which Sakamoto fans will likely adore.
Read other recent reviews by Tom Daish: The Snow Files: The Film Music of Mark Snow
, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad