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S & H Concert Review

LPO Film Concert, Philip Fowke (pf), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Dirk Brossé, RFH, 9th May 2003 (MB)



Concerts such as these – without theme or structure – rarely work and this one was no exception. Taken out of the context of the film itself the music can often seem fragmented – rather like Wagnerian ‘bleeding chunks’ – and even more problematically lack drama and tension. Choice of repertoire is also a crucial factor and in most cases the excerpts performed at this concert were not among their composer’s best scores for film. It can make for a depressing evening.

British orchestras have a lucrative side business in playing film scores and the LPO is no exception to this, having in recent years provided the soundtracks for Howard Shore’s incandescently dark score for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, as well as for Shore’s score of Cronenberg’s The Fly. There, the playing is committed which was not always the case during this concert.

Of course, some of the composers on display here knew how to compose a suite – and Vaughan Williams’ Coastal Command is a paradigm film suite (unlike the ones which followed, Elmer Bernstein’s The Magnificent Seven and Nino Rota’s La Strada). Coastal Command is not one of the composer’s best scores, although it is highly charged (if a little too Waltonian at times), but its overwhelmingly British tonal world discharges much of the drama that might be apparent in favour of occasionally saccharine pastoral passages. Bernstein’s suite was played in too slapdash a fashion to give the necessary dynamism to the music, whereas Rota’s, whilst displaying that composer’s innate classicism, proved troublesome in the dashing carnival scene.

Much better was Trevor Jones’ ‘Elk Hunt’ and ‘The Kiss’ from The Last of the Mohicans, the former piece dark hued and tonally dense (in the manner of his score to From Hell) so its sweeping drama was always apparent. Bernstein appeared in the second half with his ‘Suite of Waltzes’ from The Age of Innocence played with an authentically elegant touch. John Williams’ ‘Adventures on Earth’ from E.T. is typical of the composer at that time – but is surely music that work’s best with the image of the film in front of one.

The piano has always been an instrumental part of film music (from at least since the early 1940s when David Lean expropriated Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto (undeniably great film music) for Brief Encounter). It has been hit and miss since. Nyman’s music from The Piano, reworked into a concerto, has always sounded second rate and did so on this occasion; in contrast, Richard Rodney Bennett’s ‘Theme and Waltz’ from Murder on the Orient Express is in a different league, even if the piece in concert is played in a re-orchestrated form which underplays the work’s natural opulence. Much better to try and get hold of the rare CD of the score played by the Orchestra of the ROH Covent Garden (coupled with Rota’s equally memorable score to Death on the Nile).

The odd chunk out in this concert was Richard Bissill’s Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra which aspires to film music but isn’t. Written for this concert’s soloist, Philip Fowke, it seems to have remained unplayed for many years until this, its first, performance. Bissill’s mistake in his programme note is to state the following: ‘My Rhapsody…is romantic and dramatic in style and very much in the same mould as these two film pieces [The Warsaw Concerto and The Dream of Olwen]’. It is nothing of the kind, of course. Most striking about the piece is that piano and orchestra seem rarely to play together – it sounds like a series of cadenzas stitched together with orchestral interludes. Richard Addinsell and Charles Williams composed genuinely symphonic concertos and Bissill’s work, even with its virtuosic piano writing (and fistfuls of octaves are plentiful), pales beside both.

The shortcomings of this concert were many, not least in the prosaic conducting of Dirk Brossé and his patronising cues to the audience. But it is worth the orchestra remembering that just as poorly performed classical music can alienate audiences so can poorly performed film music. If we had say just one great piece on the programme (and why not have had Bernard Herrmann’s undeniably brilliant Concerto Macabre from Hangover Square) it might have put a different complexion on events.

Marc Bridle



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