Review: Ask the River (Rachel Portman)

Anyone with even a passing interest in music for film and television cannot fail to recognise the name, Rachel Portman. Born in 1960, and educated at Worcester College, Oxford, Portman has been composing music for the screen for four decades. She has written over 100 scores, won numerous awards, and was honoured with an OBE in 2010. I first heard her music in the 1992 documentary Elizabeth R.

This collection for piano solo contains 13 pieces inspired by nature, all of which featured on her album of the same name. In the introduction, Portman writes:

“They are the fruit of many years spent being immersed in nature. What can be more inspiring than the green shoots of new beech leaves appearing in the woods with the dappling light reflected in the spring breeze?”

Who could argue with that?

It’s refreshing to be sent music to review which hasn’t been written specifically with the education market in mind (although I’ve always thought of the ‘education market’ as a bit of a misnomer…music is music). This is a collection which will inspire and encourage all ages of pianist. It’s a collection to immerse yourself in, just like nature herself.

Much Loved by Rachel Portman

Particular favourites of mine included the wistful ‘Much Loved’ and ‘Still Here’. The nostalgic melodies of ‘Apple Tree’ and ‘Childhood’ are captivating. ‘Recollection’ and ‘Way Home’ both capture her journeys spent in nature. In fact, one might consider this whole collection to be a journey through nature, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. In the main, the pieces are likely to suit pianists of around Grade 5 and above.

The style is often sparse and simple, both in a positive way. They are not necessarily simple to play with ‘Leaves and Trees’ and ‘The Summer Day’ presenting their own technical challenges to the pianist. What’s clever about the music here is that it is effective without being over-engineered. Some might call it minimalist, and even if they did, it would be meant in the best possible way. The pieces are effective without being overly-complex. They are a lesson in making the best use of a single, often simple idea.

Way Home by Rachel Portman

Nature knows exactly what it needs and when, and I think the music here reflects that. This is a captivating and immersive collection of pieces which will delight generations of pianists to come.


Ask the River by Rachel Portman, is published by Chester Music, ISBN 9781705104958, priced £15.99.


I was sent a review copy of this book free of charge; however, this review is my honest opinion as a teacher. You can find my Reviews Policy here.


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