The Good, the Bad and the Awkward

Sally Whitwell, piano, toy piano, recorder, melodica, harpsichord
Classical, Film Music, New Music
ABC Classics 476 4898
Reviewed by , November 1st, 2014

Albums of film-score music dished up for piano, played by classically trained musicians, can be tedious. Partly, this is because one sometimes senses that the performer (and/or their record company) is just using the hit-movie connection to sell CDs rather than out of a real love for, or commitment to the music. In addition, much original film music simply doesn’t survive being divorced from the film: a piece that is perfect for a particular scene in a film is often revealed to be crushingly dull in a concert or audio recording.

For these reasons, I was curious to see how Sally Whitwell, a creative and award-winning young Australian pianist, would cope with these challenges in her 2012 album for ABC Classics, The Good, the Bad, and the Awkward. Pleasantly surprised, I must admit that this album really works (although the style of the recorded sound is not entirely to my taste—I’d love to hear a more ‘live’, less studio-bathroom acoustic).

Sally Whitwell

Sally Whitwell

Whitwell plays very well, and shows a fine sensitivity to the very wide range of musical styles represented here. Her love for this music is evident from start to finish, in the playing and also in her refined and witty arrangements of many pieces—not just for piano, but for her one-woman studio band incorporating toy piano, melodica and other things. Far from awkward, these quirky arrangements are effective and delightful.

Some of the pieces collected here are in fact ‘real’ music borrowed by movies. Schubert’s G-flat Impromptu (used in Portrait of a Lady) has both elegance and drama, with a lovely clarity. Other pieces like Bach’s C-major Prelude (Bagdad Café) and Debussy’s Clair de Lune (Ocean’s Eleven) are also played with an admirably unpretentious commitment that allows the listener to forget how unfortunately hackneyed these works are, and just enjoy them.

Of the works written expressly for film soundtracks, perhaps only Philip Glass’s music for The Hours reveals itself to be rather lacking when separated from the film (I say this as someone who admires much of Glass’s other music). Despite Whitwell’s fine playing, this music from The Hours pales into insignificance musically alongside pieces like Angelo Badalamenti’s atmospheric work for The City of Lost Children and Twin Peaks or Yann Tiersen’s gorgeous music for Amélie.

What makes this recording as a whole something special, I feel, is not simply Whitwell’s performances but the fact that as an arranger and curator she has built a genuinely coherent album of interesting, colourful and beautiful pieces, drawn together by the fact that the listener feels she really enjoys both the music itself and also the films associated with it.

VIEW: Sally Whitwell talks about the making of her Aria award winning album of music by Philip Glass http://youtube/bg69rrikgCw

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