Angele Dubeau & La Pieta: ‘Ludovico Einaudi: Portrait’ Album Review

Ludovico Einaudi: Portrait is a stunning album of contemporary orchestral music. While you’re probably well aware of Ludovico Einaudi’s work, it’s relatively new to me. What I find so intriguing about his music making is that he seems to embed narrative movement in music; his pieces either tell stories or evoke emotions as part of stories. At first blush, you may be tempted to pass off his music as background or new-age music. There’s a grain of truth in that you could read a book with this intensely involving music playing in the background, but really it’s background in the same sense that rain, wind, or sunshine are background to a camping trip. They are an integral part of your experience and deeply change what that experience is like. His music’s visceral sonic impact is more immediate than “Spring” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is for most diners in a café. These are moving, musical stories that help us build images and experience in our minds in a new way. A perfect example of this is the track “Experience.” It’s been used in a number of different videos where, typically without words, some life experiences are shown. The emotion is wrapped up in the music and images which combine to communicate powerfully. I’ve previously heard Mr. Einaudi’s “Divenire” but this recent album (released March 31, 2015) beautifully transitions the music to a fuller texture and richer sound.

Ludovico Einaudi: Portrait is part of a larger series in which Angèle Dubeau and her string orchestra, La Pietà, arrange the work of contemporary composers (Philip Glass in 2008, Arvo Pärt in 2010 and John Adams in 2011), for violin and string orchestra to change, in Ms. Dubeau’s words: “its texture, rethinking its character while bringing a new sonic dimension.” Another benefit is that not only is the music superbly played, its production is first rate. In the case of Mr. Einaudi’s music, she brings out the meaning behind his music. It’s also great to hear what was originally focused on piano now given a larger setting.

There’s a reason his music is often adopted for ads (P&G for the Olympics), shows (The Untouchables) and movies (Banglore Days) – the movement and emotion fits so well within these narrative moments. Let’s take a look, for example, at the first piece, “Life.” It seems to start innocuously enough with the sound of a plucked harp, pretty and ethereal. Ah, but then the violin comes in like a ballerina dancing lithely amongst couples on a dance floor. While their pretty, and relatively staid, dance continues, the ballerina darts in and out between them moving as if there were no gravity. The string instruments join her in a more urgent plea for life. The easy initial dance is over and now they play and dance for their lives. Sheer energy and force are felt everywhere you turn, incessant and demanding. Once again, the lighter dance takes form and now we end with the peace of the plucked harp. There is a beginning, middle and end to this story. The images that you form may be different, but the music is a river that takes you there. Mr. Einaudi is a sonic story teller and we journey with him when we hear his music.

I suspect this music will meet you in a different place than it meets me. It will also meet me in a different place tomorrow. This is not a passive listening experience but we bring our own imaginations into to it. This seems to be borne out through the myriad of Youtube videos that take “Experience” as their soundtrack. Check them out; search Youtube for Ludovico Einaudi Experience and listen to a couple (most of them will be different versions than the one on this album). You’ll see how they’re used in similar but different ways. I could even see parts of “Experience” used on the movie Hugo’s soundtrack.

“Time Lapse” is another fabulous piece to sense the narrative drive. We hear the relentlessness of time driving us forward, ever quickening and ever persistent. Ms. Dubeau & La Pietà take on this piece with precision and emotion. Their virtuosity allows us to feel every moment while sensing the greater flow of time. It’s as if we see the bark on the trees even as the forest blurs by.

Another highlight of the album is “Sarabande.” Valérie Milot’s flat-out gorgeous playing of the harp juxtaposed to the sonorous tone of Ms. Dubeau’s “Des Rosiers” Stradivarius violin is beautifully startling. Then towards the end of the piece, my jaw just drops as the violin maintains, dead-on a single note as the harp moves forward. I’m mean, how do you do that without the sound of the wavering even the slightest bit? Maybe it’s all post-production, but I wouldn’t be surprised if not.

A final highlight of the main album is, of course, Divenire. Mr. Einaudi put out his own album with that title and that track. Here we have an opportunity to hear it anew with the aforementioned texture and sonic signature heard so well throughout the album. This song is all about becoming (divenire’s translation from Italian to English). We sense the choice points, the growth, the turning into who you’re called to be with moments of soaring and sadness. Now all this talk of story and “becoming” may sound like so much manure, but I encourage you to actively listen to this album and see if you don’t have your own story played out before your eyes and ears.

Finally, a couple of notes about the bonus tracks. Underwood is a delightful, mostly piano focused piece that’s simple but lovely. “Sarabande” is reprised with piano instead of harp. It’s great, but the harp kind of spoiled me. Also, it’s rate that I get to hear a harp, so I embrace when I can. The highlight of the bonus set is DJ Champion’s layered in sounds on “Time Lapse.” It just seems to open the dimensions a bit.

I love the idea of this series of portraits of contemporary composers. I look forward to hearing some of the earlier albums. Part of what makes this so exciting is that it’s so well executed. The playing, production and playlist all come together to paint a terrific picture of the composer and, in Ludovico Einaudi’s case, allows us to have sense of progression in his storytelling. I highly encourage you to give this excellent album a listen.