Review by Harry Rolnick. Literally Moving Music →

L. Ullmann, I. Bergman (from Autumn Sonata)
For me, a little German music goes a long way.
Spoken by Simone Signoret in Stanley Kramer’s Ship of Fools

Listen to them. Children of the Night. What music they make.
Spoken by Bela Lugosi about wolves in Tod Browning’s Dracula

The original advertised name of this recital–“Baroque Masterpieces from The Greatest Films of All Time”–was so preposterous that it was marginally upgraded to “Baroque Masterpieces from Epic Films.” “Epic” though, hardly applies to the films here. And little here illuminated those chosen pictures.

So the title could well be “18th Century Transcriptions from 11 Entertaining Movie Pictures.”.

Actually, outside of Gounod’s Bach‑overlay, Baroque music was shunned in all films until the present. The Silent Age was confined to Peer Gynt, Moonlight and mushes of bathetic Pathétique. With sound, American movies were “All Singing! All Dancing!”

Ms. Osetinskaya’s choices were obviously personal. And questionable. Her single selection from Bach‑loving Ingmar Bergman was an unlikely work by Handel. (Oh, what traumatic memories we would have had she selected Bach’s Well‑Tempered Clavier’s Eighth Fugue from Wild Strawberries. That music was not background. It was played, metathesized, transformed into a dramatic epiphany.) But she chose Handel’s Chaconne.

Well, as they say, Chaconne à son goût.

Barry Lyndon? Stanley Kubrick–who, with Martin Scorsese and Mike Nichols–has been the most musically-intelligent American director. Barry Lyndon used Handel’s Siciliano as a leitmotiv. But Kubrick never used the piano, plunking for full orchestra. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris was originally for organ, not piano. And its repetition at the end, disguised under the electronic score, is the musical highlight of the Russian director’s masterwork.

As for this one‑time film reviewer, other choices for Baroque interpolations would be too numerous for these 800‑odd words. Though at the top of the list, the only true masterwork of the Baroque music in film was Melville’s Les Enfants terribles. But Ms. Osetinskaya had no violins, no orchestra, only two hands and a Steinway.

Which was quite enough, Polina Osetinskaya herself is an excellent pianist. The idea of Baroque film music might be a showbiz hook. And the program was–to say the least–lopsided, devolving from the mightiest Bach to a 30‑minute pâtisserie of Rameau. Yet she could handle it all, with enticing degrees of aplomb and virtuosity. In her native Russia, she may be a celebrated political pariah for her vocal opposition to Putin. But in this concert, her personality and amazing skill made her an audience favorite.

Starting with the Italian Concerto, she whipped through the opening‑half Bach with dazzling displays. Yes, the Concerto last movement was so fast that it was shapeless, a tornado. After that, the Busoni arrangement of a Chorale and another arrangement from Breaking the Waves were both sensitive and showed her extreme virtuosity.

The last Bach was the mighty Passacaglia and Fugue, a fraction of which appears in Godfather. The entire organ work resounded here, with intense elevation and pedal depression. A very very conscientious effort to show its power.

The second half was not quite so heavy. Granted, I can no longer hear the Handel Siciliano without thinking of the massive film orchestration by Leonard Rosenman. Nor can I remember Purcell C Minor Ground in The Draftman’s Contract (Michael Nyman’s minimalist score was too memorable), But Ms. Osetinskaya, finishing her German side, played with English sensibility and personal virtuosity.

L. Ullmann, I. Bergman (from Autumn Sonata)

The single work using music as tonal background and metaphor was Bergman’s Autumn Sonata. Granted, the major work in the film was Chopin, but many (not including this writer) feel Autumn Sonata is one of his best.

Going from the monumental Bach to the so visual Rameau for her last 30 minutes was a jolting surprise. Yet Ms. Osetinskaya’s affinity for this French genius was stunning. Oh, perhaps one might have wished for the Steinway to be half‑closed, to give the verisimilitude of the composer’s beloved harpsichord. Yet so picturesque was her playing that one soon forgot that.

Even more enlightening was that the previous works had been abstractions meant to enhance their films. With the Rameau, every one of the nine pieces–bird‑calls, Muse conversations, a village–were movies in themselves. Methinks that, had Rameau composed these pieces 180 years later, Georges Méliès might have been inspired to make short films of each.

In the meantime, we had Polina Osetinskaya, and that sufficed, for an expressive and literally picturesque finale.

Harry Rolnick for

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