Concert Review

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse Rex Ingram's film with music by Carl Davis/Nic Raine LPO conducted by Carl Davis. Royal Festival Hall, 12 12 1999

This film, which launched the star career of Rudolph Valentino in 1920, was presented as part of the LPO's Regeneration Festival, which explores apocalyptic thoughts at the close of the second millennium and also looks to the possibility of future redemption in the next one. It is essentially a fairly simplistic anti-war, anti-nationalism story of a family with mixed Argentinean, French and German origins, destroyed by their loyalties, and it must have been particularly poignant to watch for its first audiences, many of whom must have been so recently bereaved. Regrettably, it perpetuates national stereotypes it purports to deplore.

David Robinson's informative introductory lecture placed this presentation in context. Early 'films without words' never were 'silent', music being half of the composite spectacle and communal experience in lavishly appointed Picture Palaces 'where the truck driver and his wife could feel themselves King and Queen'. The best orchestras that could be afforded played scores, some of which were compiled from existing music, others specially composed to integrate action and music by such as the 73 year old Saint-Saens, Mascagni, Honegger, Hindemith, Prokofiev & Shostakovich, whose film music was thought 'too advanced' in the 1920s. Film music formed part of the musical education of filmgoers, rather as today contemporary composers can often reach wider audiences through ballet.

The laborious restoration by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill produced a superb print, mainly in sepia but with colour tinting occasionally, added to the original specification. A special delight was the exquisite calligraphy for the interposed texts; was that original too?

Carl Davis's compilation of a score using Liszt's Dante Sonata, South American instruments and rhythms, and a French night club band, with Wagnerian leitmotif procedures, is a great advance on his Napoleon venture for the 1980 London Film Festival. I found then that repetition of bits of Beethoven masterpieces wore thin, although the overall experience was impressive (it is to be revived next summer in an even longer, 5½-hour version!).

This new score had the advantage that none of its sources was too familiar. The pacing, with moods responding to the scenes on screen, was exemplary, and the orchestration was judiciously balanced from near chamber music textures to impressive, enveloping climaxes - but not too many of those. The LPO in full strength played this rewarding score splendidly, and it made for a wonderfully rich music environment within which to savour the force of Valentino's personality (even though he was nearly upstaged by a brilliantly trained monkey!) and the depiction of the 1914-18 apocalypse, predicted by the enigmatic Stranger not to be the last. A memorable evening, relished by a full house.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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