CD Review: The Last Station – Original Soundtrack

By • February 1, 2010

Composer: Sergey Yevtushenko
Label: Varese Sarabande
Suggested Retail Price: $13.99
Grade: A

At the beginning of every year, I end up seeing a film that I wish I could’ve gone back in time to put on my top ten movie and soundtrack list. So for the start of 2010, that honor goes to THE LAST STATION, Michael Hoffman’s gorgeously poetic film about the last days of the literary lion known as Lev Tolstoy. While I may have been expecting a stuffed shirt exercise as dense as the author’s WAR AND PEACE, THE LAST STATION turns out to be a vibrant, infinitely approachable picture that doesn’t require a B.A. in literature to appreciate, let alone to listen to, especially thanks to Sergey Yevtushenko’s beguiling score.

Hoffman’s last, equally wonderful period exercise for 1995’s RESTORATION inspired one of James Newton Howard’s best scores. And one can hope the same touch of class he’s created in Yevtushenko (best represented here for his scoring of the one-take art movie RUSSIAN ARK) will create a similar career renaissance for this hugely promising composer. But then, it seems apropos to get a Russian composer to score a film about one of his country’s greatest figures. Doubtless Yevtushenko’s approach could have been as dark and stormy as Stravinsky or Prokofiev, given what we’ve expected from his iconic figure. What we get in the personage of Christopher Plummer is a Tolstoy who’s got more in common with your old country grandfather, albeit one who’s unpretentiously brilliant, with a functioning libido. Whether Tolstoy is stroll through the great woods of his country retreat, or meeting his fate in a grimy train station, Yevtushenko is in warmly approachable tune with the man, while also never forgetting that he wrote, and is, the stuff of legend.

If Lev Tolstoy had a greatly identifiable prose style (though I can’t pretend to have read him), then one reason for the success of STATION’s score is a similar, immediately recognizable wealth of melodic themes. The first piano and violin motif is introduced with “Romanze,” an achingly tragic (though not overwhelmingly so) piece that’s soon overtaken by a full orchestra. It’s reminiscent of John Williams’ theme for SCHINDLER’S LIST, though with a different sadness behind it. And STATION’s instantly memorable hits keep on coming with the playful Balalaika and bell percussion of “Chertkov’s Waltz,” music that positively prances with Tolstoy’s earthiness. Things aren’t going to get sad for a bit in THE LAST STATION, allowing Yevtushenko to play his main theme far more lightly in “Holy of Holies,” his music conveying a star struck acolyte’s sense of wonder at being introduced to his version of Michael Jackson. Thankfully, Tolstoy himself tells the kid to lighten up, leading to another gossamer, sprightly waltz theme with “Yasnaya Polyana.”

Hearing a scratchy version of Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” on Tolstoy’s phonograph proves to an inspired way for Yevtushenko to introduce what might be the score’s most effective theme in “Morning Song,” as gossamer strings lead to a delicately simple, and infinitely moving solo piano melody. As the American composer Stephen Sondheim proved for that other great Russian historical epic called REDS, there’s nothing more effective than having a few, beautifully chosen keys to highlight a character, with all other sound effects dropping down to nothing. It’s a technique that cuts through to the human heart of an icon, and once again is simplicity at its finest for THE LAST STATION.

But there’s trouble in Tolstoy’s paradise, whether it comes from his smothering, yet loving drama queen wife Sofya (Helen Mirren), and the cultish followers of the author who view his work (and his long-suffering mate’s potential earning property) as a freebie for the Russian people, and humanity in general. Though kept relatively light, their sense of passionate yearning steadily fills THE LAST STATION’s score. Yevtushenko’s music quivers with impending destiny as his central themes bend to Tolstoy’s titular fate, the violins becoming more pronounced, the themes going down a notch. And with the expectedly emotional “Betrayal,” Yevtushenko’s music twists the knife into Sofya. It finally leads the score into tragedy, if not life’s inevitability with the funereal bells and sorrowful strings of “Flight” as Tolstoy gets on a train to nowhere. But leave it to Yevtushenko not to dive into the storm, as he treats Sofya’s suicide attempt with a few piano notes in “The Pond.” That’s all it takes to get across her violent emotions that essentially send Tolstoy to his feverish doom.

Yet Yevtushenko’s exceptionally well-constructed score lets us know where we’re headed, as his themes combine for Tolstoy’s death watch, with the “The Journey,” “Vigil,” and “Night” coalescing with equal parts anguish and destiny, especially in the darkening piano of “The Journey.” Then with the final funereal peels of “The Last Station,” the composer marks Tolstoy’s death and transfiguration, using violins and orchestra in a way that’s respectable instead of emotionally mawkish, His moving score is complemented by Hoffman’s crane up shot over the gathered throngs, a combination of visual style and swelling music that truly punches in the handkerchief-pulling emotion.

But in the end, what’s remarkable is that any tears that might be generated by THE LAST STATION are for a guy who used to be as dusty as your unread copy of WAR AND PEACE. THE LAST STATION’s greatest musical triumph might be that it makes you want to finally crack open that book. But in the meantime, there’s a hugely impressive film and score that turns Lev Tolstoy into a remarkably affecting flesh and blood figure. And Yevtushenko makes us get what makes his country’s greatest author so special, and human without being overly pushy about it. It’s music that beautifully romances us with the man, and the myth.

Listen to Tolstoy’s last stop here


By LaTunes on February 1st, 2010 at 2:25 pm

A wonderfully light, entertaining film, The Last Station is. I entirely agree with the reviewer. We laughed and we cried – just like a movie should be. And the acting is just sublime, always with a twinkle! A nice experience, highly recommended!

By john bruk on September 3rd, 2010 at 9:52 pm

some of the most beautiful music at the end of the film – I am buying it tomorrow

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