Some silent films take on a new lease of life when they are shown in concert-halls with symphony orchestras providing a live soundtrack. Eisenstein’s great collaborations with Prokofiev, Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible, come down the years with power undimmed and there have been other successful examples more recently, such as Philip Glass’s atmospheric score for Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête.
As part of its weekend devoted to music on the theme of Joan of Arc, the London Symphony Orchestra introduced one more. In 1994, the American composer Richard Einhorn wrote an oratorio called Voices of Light inspired by Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent film La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc and this performance of his score was given with a showing of the original film as its accompaniment.
Or was it the other way round? Dreyer’s 80-minute film of Joan of Arc’s last days, from her trial to her death at the stake, is so concentrated in its depiction of the events and emotions involved that it is hard to see how a musical soundtrack could add much – though many have tried, including a new version by two pop musicians, Adrian Utley of Portishead and Will Gregory of Goldfrapp, only last year.
At this Barbican showing, Einhorn’s music felt an unwanted intruder, like a noisy late arrival at the cinema when the main feature has already started. Through the first half of the film, where Dreyer so penetratingly portrays the twists and turns of the religious authorities as they try to get Joan to incriminate herself, the music seemed irrelevant, left peddling mawkish religiosity in endless minor-key arpeggios. The second half is better, as Einhorn responds to the more straightforward narrative of Joan’s journey to the stake with a heightened sense of variety. Nothing about it, though, is at all original.
There is no reason to criticise the performance by the LSO under conductor Marin Alsop or the contribution of Synergy Vocals and the London Symphony Chorus, subtly amplified to give the impression they were singing in a cathedral. Einhorn’s score has won popularity as a standalone work. Performed here alongside its original inspiration in Dreyer’s film, it quickly paled into insignificance.