Victoria II Original Game Soundtrack :: Review by Simon
Another year, another 'grand strategy game' by Paradox Interactive. After Europa Universalis III and Europa Universalis Rome let players control every single aspect of their medieval and antique kingdoms, Victoria II did the same for 19th-century empires. As always with the develope's historical strategy games, the number of playable nations (over 200 in Victoria II) was matched by the depth and complexity of the gameplay mechanisms. After the first Victoria game had been met with poor reviews, its successor was decidedly better received by critics, although the game didn't get the same amount of critical praise as Europa Universalis III. As for the game's music, the developers decided not to change a winning team and once more called upon the services of Andreas Waldetoft, who had already provided several lush orchestral scores for the company. Victoria II was the first of Waldetoft's soundtracks to receive a dedicated soundtrack release via iTunes in 2010. When Waldetoft's work on the Europa Universalis series was released via digital downloads in April 2012, Victoria II saw a re-release as well. However, since both the 2010 and the 2012 version of Victoria II hold exactly the same content, one wonders in how far the 2012 album can actually be called a re-release, and why you would have to re-release an album that was published as a download in the first place it's not like it could go out of print.
There might be reason to be ambivalent about how necessary this new release of Victoria II was, but once you listen the music, these technicalities won't matter one bit. If you've listened to Europa Universalis III or Europa Universalis Rome (or read our reviews on them), you'll know what's in store here: a lavish orchestral score, driven by mainly slow tempi, lovingly shaped compositions and orchestrations that give a music a symphonic breadth, and a bevy of beautiful melodies. Speaking of which: while Waldetoft always had a hand for writing attractive tunes, Victoria II is his finest creation to date melody junkies will lap up every single one of the title's downright gorgeous, emotive melodies.
One reason why Victoria II charms even more than Waldetoft's earlier scores is the way it presents its melodies. His Europa Universalis titles tweaked their orchestral sounds to appropriately represent their games' setting Europa Universalis III through the addition of some world music and medieval instruments, while Rome went for a monumental wall-of-sound that added in various ethnic, Mediterranean influences. While these approaches seem obvious given each game's setting, Victoria II's 19th-century trappings complicate things. Simply scoring the game historically accurate would generate a romantic orchestral score that would sound like many other game soundtracks, failing to provide the title with a distinct identity. Waldetoft finds an ingenious solution to this problem. Most compositions refer to the game's time period by adapting the orchestration if not structure of a violin concerto, one of the 19th century's most important compositional forms that arguably reached the zenith of its popularity during that time (think Paganini, Vieuxtemps and others). Almost every piece on the title features a solo violin, which usually carries a track's melodies and becomes the focal point of each cue.
This orchestrational decision not only sets Victoria II apart from other romantically-inclined scores, it also achieves the same positive effects as on Europa Universalis III, where a solo violin was frequently paired with the orchestra's exuberant strains to keep the music's bombast in check. On this title, where the solo violin assumes a significantly bigger role, this approach works even better, as the score's silky, full-bodied melodies are perfectly matched with the tender sounds of the violin. Thus, this soundtrack balances grandiloquence something you'd expect from a game called Victoria II with a wholly enchanting lyricism that adds a fantastic amount of emotionality to the score and manages to sustain the music's pathos, only with different means than the more grandiose orchestral passages. Despite the often gushing nature of the solo violin material, it never turns saccharine. Waldetoft not only writes a convincing emulation of andante-paced Romantic violin material, but also ensures that his melodies always retain their elegant, noble tone, no matter how effusing they become.
To realise and convey this mix of emotions, Waldetoft was right to work with live musicians. Victoria II's unlisted solo violist deserves praise for his/her sensitive performance and prominent, yet tasteful use of 19th century-appropriate vibrato. Further underlining the title's classical ambitions is the fact that all instruments, particularly the solo violin, are placed in a spacious concert hall acoustic. Lastly, while the score is less colourful then both of Waldetoft's earlier soundtracks the orchestra is often reduced to the string section this focus on succulent string sounds actually increases the album's sensuous, velvety sonorities, working entirely in the music's favour. And let's not forget that Waldetoft knows how to write orchestral accompaniments that are not only very pretty, but also have sufficient depth to not strain the listeners' patience during the compositions' considerable running times.
All these lovely sounds are cast into an album arc that is more engaging than those on the Europa Universalis series, made possible by the fact that the music on Victoria II possess a greater emotional breadth than those earlier scores. Things begin with all the pomp and circumstance than would rightfully expect although the string ostinato that kicks off opening track "For God And Queen" is more Handel than Elgar. But it's of course equally suitable to praise the Queen's glory and once the majestic choir melody sets in, "For God And Queen" oozes magnificence that is effectively kept in check by the solo violin's lingering melody.
"The Coronation" and "Buckingham Palace" continue the music's imperial streak, and while the former's slow opening march feels a bit thin on its own, once it's coupled with the solo violin, the resulting contrast works a treat. "Buckingham Palace" is one of the album's highlights and probably Victoria II's best developed composition. It opens with an idyllic violin-led passage, but at 1:20 bursts into a spurt of activity with a light-hearted march that is capped off at 2:15 with an infectious, proud melody adorned by colourful woodwind flutters. It's a skilful demonstration of how to write music that despite its grandiosity doesn't lose its sense of fun. The following track "Europe Anno 1805" is the album's only piece that doesn't quite justify its running time. A meandering cue that develops reasonably well dynamically and melodically, "Europe Anno 1805" is still mostly interested in wallowing in its exquisite string tones. The fact that the solo violin's melodies are less inspired here doesn't help, but for now, the music manages to cruise by on the sheer attractiveness of its ingredients and the way they're mixed together.
After this weighty opening has established the music's aristocratic nature and scope, Victoria II lightens up a bit and delves into a number of atmospherically more varied pieces that avert an overload of magisterial splendour, yet are substantial enough to not let the album sag in its middle-section. "Johans Waltz" gives the solo violin a chance to display a different side to its character then solemnity and moving pathos, in a composition that is a cut above other Waltz pastiches à la "Waltz for the Moon." It's a sumptuous piece that, despite the necessity to maintain its triple metre, does an admirable job at developing its rhythms and textures, even managing to sneak in a charming piano solo. "Handel This", a lively jig with a Baroque air, and "Queens Scherzo", with some cheeky string pizzicati and an almost bouncy trumpet solo, continue Victoria II's more light-hearted tones first heard on "Johans Waltz". "Independence March" and "Royal March" are boisterous rather then blustering and don't outstay their welcome, making for entertaining interludes.
"Poverty" takes up Victoria II's emotive mood again. Don't expect a gritty portrayal of live on the fringes, as the title finds the solo violin wring every drop of melodrama from its empathetic melody lines. It doesn't sound much different to the title's earlier compositions depicting royalty this music is about the ennobling kind of poverty but it still sounds enthralling. The most curious of these diverse compositions is "Inventions", at first the album's most subdued piece, almost somnambulist in the way the solo violin keeps circling around the same restrained motif over and over. Just when the music starts to feel too thin, a strident bassoon ostinato enters and creates a polyrhythmic web that energises the music in time to be credibly capped with some wordless choir vocals, whose impact is sufficient pay off after the minimalist start of "Inventions".
After giving the music and the listener some time to catch a breath during this mid-section, Victoria II ramps up its theatricality towards the end with a handful of elegant, slightly morbid compositions that steer the album's mood into more tragic and moribund territory, foreshadowed to a degree by "Poverty". Of course, this new mood fits Waldetoft's favoured orchestrations and his knack for slow melodies just as well, and while some listeners might find that Victoria II's final third wallows in elegiac gloom, the music certainly does so in the most attractive way possible, making for a riveting album finale. "Death Of Prince Albert" and "Countryside" voice previously unheard, anguished tones in the former's passionate, if still dignified outburst of grief, and the latter's constant, heavy cello accents that drive the solo violin to soar above the piece's downbeat rhythms. The mood turns darker and graver yet on "Russia 1917", and the piece further establishes Waldetoft's plan to take Victoria II's grand sound and modify it from triumphant (at the album's beginning) to melancholic and forlorn. It obviously mirrors the dominance and fall of Europe's old empires, whose might crumbled in the chaos of the 20th century, and this inevitably cataclysmic trajectory gives the title a dramatically potent album arc that predecessors lacked.
Victoria II's descent into well-mannered tragedy reaches its apex on closing tracks "Winter" and "Lament For The Queen - Finale", both tracks running for more then seven minutes each. Among the two cues, "Winter" is the more accomplished piece and Waldetoft's most successful realisation of his classical ambitions, with a more refined orchestration that manages to paint the chill of winter through Victoria II's usually very warm orchestrations. A brief outbreak of march-driven confidence doesn't alleviate the music's heavy mood, and the excellently developed composition culminates in a cathartic orchestral crescendo over an effective, if simple three-note motif hammered out by the orchestra over relentless cymbal crashes and rolling snare drums.
"Lament For The Queen - Finale" tries to one-up "Winter" by magnifying the game's theatrical strain and catapulting it into the realm of the operatic, adding a solo soprano and tenor to the proceedings. This move mostly works, but the piece's undoubtedly moving effect is diminished by technical problems. It's difficult to say if the faults lie with the live artists' recording, or in the way the album mix combines their melodies and the synth orchestra. In any case, there's no denying that the soprano's high notes at 2:39 and 4:18 sound more like faint, high-pitched distortion than like an actual vocal melody, meshing indistinctly with the orchestral textures. The tenor's recording is less problematic, although he's placed too forwardly at 2:56 and 4:35 and sounds borderline hollow in his voluminous deeper notes, whose considerable resonance is reproduced less vividly then one would hope for. "Lament For The Queen - Finale" is still a worthy close to what is a very strong album, generating enough gravitas for the occasion, but it's not the crown jewel that it aims to be.
Andreas Waldetoft once more writes a luxurious score, and its exquisite melodic beauty surpasses its predecessors. Giving the solo violin a leading role throughout the soundtrack is not only an inspired way to underscore the game's 19th-century setting, but also brings out every ounce of luscious warmth that flows through these splendid, radiant melody lines. As on previous soundtracks, Waldetoft knows how to write convincing, symphonically-styled pieces, and Victoria II, despite its smaller instrumental palette, feels like Waldetoft's most classically-inspired work yet, full of gravitas and grand drama and emotions. The mostly stately compositions exude an enrapturing sense of nobility and occasion, while ranging from the ceremonial, optimistic bombast of the album's opening to an elegiac, near operatic finale. It all appropriately underscores the game's immense scale and subject matter the reign and dawning decline of Europe's empires. No wonder then that Victoria II feels 'heavy' throughout, but it almost always comes across as grand and weighty, instead of bloated. The score narrowly misses out on a higher grade as not all of its compositions are universally excellent, and sadly, the closing track "Lament For The Queen - Finale" of all pieces struggles with some technical issues. Still, if you like your orchestral scores tuneful and opulent, you should snap up Victoria II immediately.
Overall Score: 8/10