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The Snow Queen (Tuomas Kantelinen)

November 7, 2013

Cover_thesnwoqueenTHE SNOW QUEEN

Tuomas Kantelinen, 2013, Ondine
25 tracks, 69.41

“Where words fail, music speaks.” – Hans Christian Andersen. And it speaks beautifully and powerfully in Tuomas Kantelinen’s epic ballet suite.

Review by Pete Simons

What is it?

Celebrating the 90th anniversary of the Finnish National Ballet, “The Snow Queen” (or “Lumikuningatar” in its original language) is Kenneth Greve’s recreation of a classic tale by Hans Christian Andersen. Aimed deliberately at the winter holiday season, it premiered in November 2012 to great critical and popular acclaim. Composer Tuomas Kantelinen (b. 1969) says of this own work that he wanted “to write music that is melodic, beautiful and accessible, as its principal function is to put viewers of all ages into a cheerful Christmas mood. It is a deliberate nod towards the tradition of Christmas ballets for the whole family, such as “Nutcracker”. I had a great deal of fun creating character dance pastiches.

“The Snow Queen” tells the story of a mirror that reflects only bad things. When demons attempt to take it up to heaven it slips and falls to earth – shattering into millions of pieces as small as sand. As these pieces get picked up by the wind, they blow in to people’s eyes and hearts. Kerttu and Kai are two children enjoying life until a tiny piece of the mirror corrupts Kai’s soul. The next winter Kai encounters The Snow Queen who takes him to her palace. Kerttu goes in search of her friend, but many perils – not least The Snow Queen – stand in her way to save her friend.

What does it sound like?

Many years ago, probably about a decade or so, Tuomas Kantelinen attended a seminar at the World Soundtrack Awards in Belgium. He seemed a likeable lad. I emailed him afterwards and he was kind enough to reply. In fact, he ended up sending me a demo CD which I still treasure greatly to this day. During the seminar he mentioned (and I do paraphrase from memory) how many Finnish films are dark and depressing, dealing with World War II and its aftermath; and how he would like to score something more playful, like a Disney film! The demo he sent me contained 6 exuberant, orchestral cues (and songs)  based on fantasy and children’s stories; written in a style that would suit Disney-like animated films. It contains some of the most beautiful melodies I have ever heard. And it felt like such a loss that these themes only existed on a demo. … Until now.

Imagine my utter delight to recognise one of those themes (“Kuhr’s Song”) towards the end of “Final Battle”; and then another one (“Meshi’s Song”, my favourite and still a monumental tear-jerker) in “Pas de Deux”. My heart just melted. Again, as it did all those years ago. It is such a lush and melancholy melody, performed primarily by strings. And at over seven minutes long it satisfies a craving that has run very deep for far too long. The performance here is beautifully restraint. It is easy to want this to build and build, but Kantelinen resists it (and thus so must we); and the result is all the more heart-wrenching for it. At the risk of getting far too personal and far too cheesy, sod it… Thank you Tuomas. This cue alone has made my year!

Oh, …the rest of the album? Yeah, it’s good!

Andersen’s stories are known for their darker sides, so expect that to be reflected in the music. As early as the opening cue I was left wondering what Kantelinen might do with a dark sci-fi or indeed a horror film, as mysterious chords slowly build towards an ear-shattering crescendo. Something tells me, this is not going to be your ordinary ballet!  Whilst the opening track and, a little later, “Mirror” (6) are by far the darkest cues on the album,  they are still of an oddly romantic nature; not unlike some of the music for the “Alien” films (I bet you weren’t expecting that comparison in a festive concert work like this). The rest of the album is lighter in tone, yet often bitter-sweet as if something terrible is never too far away… and with Hans Christian Andersen I suppose it never really is! The is also plenty of (cinematic) action in “Snow Storm” (8) and the seven-minute “Final Battle” (22), which are both heavy on brass and racing strings.

Still though, this is a Christmas ballet for the entire family; and Kantelinen wanted it to be melodic, beautiful and accessible. “Kerttu and Kai” (3) offers a warm, innocent theme for the two children, orchestrated here for strings and woodwinds, fragments of it reminding me of James Horner or Alan Silvestri. The theme reccurs several times throughout the album (notably during “Pas de Deux”).  The cue “Children’s Room” (2) is as playful as the title suggest featuring a faster and snappier version of the children’s theme. (I would say that it feels like a quirky little dance… but then, you’d expect that from a ballet!) “Market Square” (4) is even more rollicking than the previous tracks and offers stellar performances by both the strings and woodwinds sections, as they flawlessly play their way through, what must be, a very challenging piece (… it has lots of notes and is rather fast-paced, you see; not to mention it’s over five minutes long). Incidental brass adds a nice touch of ‘pomp’ to the proceedings. “Dance of the Snow Flakes” is another lively cue, and one of three tracks that exceeds the seven-minute mark. It starts off reasonably light in tone with strings and another whirlwind performance by the woodwinds (note that bassoon!), though also contains some rather John Williams-esque brass flourishes. As the track progresses the strings and particular the brass intensify, culminating in a dramatic finale. Without turning to clichés, these cues manage to evoke a Christmassy spirit; and put a grin on your face. They are nothing short of outstanding.

Alongside the aforementioned “Pas de Deux”, the album contains several more lyrical cues such as “Lullaby” (19), “Evening Song” (5) and “Waking Up” (7) the melody for which can be heard throughout the album. “Snow Waltz” (9) is a pretty little piece for glockenspiel and strings and carries some melodic similarities to “Mirror”. Mysterious, otherworldly tones dominate the short, but fascinating “The Journey Starts” (12), before various dances take centre stage.

As the story takes the characters around the world we are treated to various national dances: “Swedish Dance” is an exquisite and joyous piece for strings and woodwinds; whilst the “Spanish Dance” will have you longing for a “Zorro” score by Kantelinen. The “Persian Dance” opens with rather ethereal tones but soon turns into a colourful (and quite epic) piece – with brass and percussion coming together to produce a mesmerising rhythmic motion. “Manga Girls” and “Russian Dance” are equally effective by tapping into Asian and Russian folklore respectively. These few tracks alone show great knowledge and diversity by the composer.

As the album slowly draws to a close, Kantelinen offers us the silky strings and solo oboe of “Inner Beauty”, a stunner of a track in a similar idiom as (if not a variation on) the children’s theme. It’s so charming and, in line with the composer’s notes, has an air of familiarity about it – it reminded me of the softer sides of Alan Silvestri or Howard Shore. After the sprightly waltz “Children’s Dance”, the album closes with a slow and heart-felt rendition of Kerttu and Kai’s theme as the young friends are reunited… though those last few chords remind us that pieces of the mirror are still all around us.

Is it any good?

It’s fantastic; and improves every single time as thematic variations become clearer with each listen. It’s everything the composer wanted it to be, Beautiful, lyrical and easy-going. Do not mistake ‘accessible’ for ‘simplistic’ though. The writing is incredibly detailed, the orchestrations are just perfect and the performance by the Finnish National Opera Orchestra is magnificent. Whilst there are whimsical cues aplenty here, there is also melancholy and darkness to add much appreciated sobriety to the score. “The Snow Queen” easily caters to lovers of both ‘traditional’ classical ballets and modern dramatic film scores. And whilst Kantelinen tips his musical hat to ‘the tradition of Christmas ballets‘, he doesn’t lay it on so thick that it wouldn’t be enjoyable outside of the festive season. It’s balanced just right. Maybe the feel-good nature of the music is already rubbing off on me, but I find it impossible to fault this work. It anything, it is a work that benefits greatly from giving it your full attention and a second listen. It really feels as if Kantelinen has given us the most beautiful Christmas present: his heart and soul.

Rating [4,5/5]

Tracklisting

1. Johdanto / Opening (1:27)
2. Lastenhuone / Children’s Room (2:14)
3. Kerttu ja Kai / Kerttu and Kai (1:57)
4. Kauppatori / Market Square (5:28)
5. Iltalaulu / Evening Song (1:07)
6. Peili / Mirror (2:37)
7. Herääminen / Waking Up (1:03)
8. Lumimyrsky / Snow Storm (2:12)
9. Lumivalssi / Snow Waltz (1:00)
10. Kaita etsimässä / Searching for Kai (1:29)
11. Lumihiutaleiden tanssi / Dance of the Snow Flakes (7:19)
12. Matka alkaa / The Journey Starts (1:28)
13. Ruotsalainen tanssi / Swedish Dance (1:15)
14. Espanjalainen tanssi / Spanish Dance (1:39)
15. Persialainen tanssi / Persian Dance (2:57)
16. Manga-tytöt / Manga Girls (1:56)
17. Venäläinen tanssi / Russian Dance (2:14)
18. Kerttu nukahtaa / Kerttu Falls Asleep (1:09)
19. Kehtolaulu / Lullaby (3:21)
20. Sauna / Sauna (4:07)
21. Sisäinen kauneus / Inner Beauty (2:40)
22. Viimeinen taistelu / Final Battle (7:26)
23. Pas de Deux / Pas de deux (7:23)
24. Lasten tanssi / Children’s Dance (2:32)
25. Sen pituinen se / The End (1:54)

More Information

Additional Information about the Composer on Kantelinen.net.
About The Snow Queen on Wikipedia.
Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen in Seven Stories.

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