wed 21/03/2018

FW Murnau's Faust, Royal Festival Hall | reviews, news & interviews

FW Murnau's Faust, Royal Festival Hall

FW Murnau's Faust, Royal Festival Hall

Greek composer premieres new score for silent-era classic

Gretchen (Camilla Horn) gazes adoringly at Gösta Ekman's Faust

Silent movies are currently the rage of Tinseltown, so what better moment to brush up on one of the treasures of the pre-talkie era? Top movie-ologists now contend that FW Murnau's 1926 film of Faust is a neglected all-time great ("one of the most beautifully crafted films ever made," according to Theodore Huff in Sight & Sound). It's an opinion shared by Greek composer Aphrodite Raickopoulou, whose painstakingly wrought new score for the film was premiered at the Royal Festival Hall last night.

Performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra under conductor Benjamin Wallfisch, and featuring piano soloist Gabriela Montero, Raickopoulou's sweepingly symphonic writing amplified the dramatic turbulence of Murnau's movie with a passion that would surely have impressed the director himself. An audience bristling with Greek royalty and socialites responded with appropriate ecstasy (Murnau at work, pictured below).

But first, there was an introduction by a dinner-suited Hugh Grant, who is not (he explained) an expert on German expressionist film-making, but is however a friend and fan of the composer. Grant's droll chat roved freely over Murnau's career in Germany and subsequently Hollywood, and Raickopoulou's interest in his work. Richard Curtis could hardly have scripted it better, with its self-effacing asides about his imperfect acting skills and a Faust-evoking joke about David Cameron's pact with Andy Coulson. A shame, perhaps, that he kept calling Murnau "Gurnau", though even that was an improvement on his real name, Plumpe. Nor did Grant forget to hail the excellence of the orchestra, "with the exception of Jill on cor anglais, who's a bit dodgy."

As the room darkened and the film commenced with a trio of apocalyptic horsemen galloping through a stormy sky, it was immediately clear that this would be not so much a movie, more of a pre-psychedelic trip. Mid-1920s special effects were "digital" only insofar as everything had to be painstakingly devised and constructed by hand, but even so it wasn't hard to see how Faust was considered a benchmark in lighting, camerawork, effects and design. The scene where Faust and Mephisto fly across a landscape of mountains, villages and countryside (achieved by putting the camera on a kind of rollercoaster) was somehow far more affecting than a similar feat performed using a bank of super-computers would have been, while the sequence where a towering devil envelops the little town below in his enormous black wings and sends black plague-clouds billowing over the streets and houses was stupefying (pictured below).

Raickopoulou's music mirrored the film's fantastical qualities with intensely-coloured string passages and some Wagner-esque brass, and wasn't afraid of a dollop of treacle for moments such as Faust's first romantic encounter with his beloved Gretchen or children dancing on the village green. Funereal piano and sombre violins greeted Faust's ill-judged decision to sign on Mephisto's dotted line.

The acting wasn't quite as we know it today, even from Hugh Grant. Emil Jannings's gurning, pantomimic Mephisto often brought farce where soul-piercing dread was required, while Gösta Ekman's Faust was too much like a young and fey Gene Wilder for comfort. Nonetheless, this was still film-making of boundary-busting ambition, and now it has a fine new score to go with it. All that's lacking is a big wad of funding to get some repeat performances on the road.

Watch trailer for Murnau's Faust




Marvellous trailer with Schubert's ecstatic Gretchen am Spinnrade song, the ultimate teenage fantasy of love - and here it is most aptly darkened by all those diabolical images. One forgets Schubert was only 17 when he wrote the song - what did he know about Faust & the devil at that age? Has this song a place in Raickopoulou's score? Altogether a fascinating-sounding event.

While allotting a paragraph to Hugh Grant's introduction, you fail to mention that Gabriela Montero's half hour contribution of solo piano segments were entirely improvised on the spot, an act of sponateous composition so magical, complex, witty and genial that it would be scarcely believable, unless you were there to witness it. A shocking disgrace that the audience had little clue what she was doing up there, as it was not explained or extolled in any way by either the credits or the program notes. Brava Gabriela, for your stunning contribution to a great evening!!

I agree it was a great evening and you'll have to live with the fact that Hugh Grant is pretty famous and his introduction was amusing, something this writer was reflecting. I was at this amazing event and was under no illusion who Gabriela Montero was as she was described by Grant as a brilliant international improvisational pianist and in the programme I bought there were lots of notes about her. The score by Aphrodite Raickopoulou was just fantastic.

Yes what a lovely evening it was. My partner and I thought the music score was a perfect fit for the epic Faust movie. It had its bombastic moments as well as light touch. We also thought every one of the players on stage thoroughly enjoyed themselves putting in very strong performances.

I just wanted to say how completely blown away I was by the Faust film at the Royal Festival Hall and by the magical score of composer Aphrodite Raickopoulou. I left the performance with tears in my eyes I was so moved. The grandiose symphonic sound of the orchestra was a perfect match for the film. And even better was the way in which Raickopoulou's score seemed to blend in almost imperceptibly with the impressive improvisation of Gabriela Montero on piano. These were such welcome and well devised segments to an altogether enjoyable and musically rich accompaniment to the film. This was no mean achievement to have brought together all the parts and provide such an emotional musical result.

Aphrodite Raickopoulou and Gabriela Montero's music was wonderful. I did not think that Hugh Grant's so-called introduction was amusing in any way at all, and noticed that I was not alone in this view. The fact that he couldn't even be bothered get Murnau's name right is disgraceful. His speech was lazy and self-indulgent. Why couldn't the evening have been introduced by someone with some knowledge and appreciation of the film? After all, it is unlikely that anyone bought a ticket because Hugh Grant was going to be there.

I personally thought Hugh Grant's introduction was pretty funny - he made it clear he wasn't a Murnau expert and that he was there to support his friend who composed the music.Which makes him seem a very nice guy. It was certainly incredible to experience a film like this with a whole symphony orchestra and was a very memorable evening.

It is impossible to tell from the above descriptions of the event whether Montero played along with the orchestral composition, or whether they alternated, as happened with the screenings in the US of the new silent film LOUIS last year, where Wynton Marsalis and his ensemble alternated with Cecile Licad, who played Gottschalk, Chopin and other salon music solo. I'd love to know more, and if any recordings of the proceedings were made and are available. Thanks.

@anonymous (09/03). From what I gathered afterwards, the orchestra score contained some piano, though very little, but left four or five long sections blank for solo piano improvisation by Gabriela Montero. The shortest of these sections was about four minutes, the longest about 12 minutes, if I remember correctly. In total there were about 30 minutes of solo piano improvisation. The film was 1hr 45min or so. What was amazing was how the orchestra would just hand it over and Gabriela Montero would take off without pause or hesitation, creating music which suggested both the mood of the situation in play, and the characters themselves. It was complex harmonically and melodically, and pianistically virtuosic and epic at the same time, without a single stumble, making it seem like it must have been composed, but it wasn't (from my angle in the audience she appeared to be gazing intently at a score, but I later found out she was in fact watching the film on a small monitor positioned next to the orchestra score on the piano.....while composing/playing etc!!!). Then she would have the task of handing back to the orchestra on a given time cue, and in a given key! I was amazed that she cold modulate away from the key she inherited at the beginning of the improvisation, then hand it back seamlessly in the correct key at the end of the segment. Some of the visual cues were very specific, too, and comic, like a jewelry box springing open, and she seemed to be able to anticipate these perfectly, while playing and composing at the same time. @anonymous(29/02) I, too, thought her role was not made clear on the night. Given what she does, how much of it she did, and that I don't know of anyone else in the classical world who can do it, I think she could have been given some credit and explanation in the program. I have my program here at home and it just gives her name and instrument, but not her role, more importantly. I would love to have read her own explanation of how she does it, for example, because it is the kind of thing you only read about in legend, and never actually see happen in front of you. But, apart from that, it was a fantastic occasion, and the composer did a wonderful job. I think it was really a great idea to include the improvised sections in the score, in reference to the old days and as a way of punctuating the performance musically. It was a risk, but Gabriela Montero looked like she could have done it all night. Really amazing, like a Mozart or Liszt right there in front of us! I am definitely a new fan!!!!!!!!!!!

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