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The Film Music of Sir Arnold Bax
Oliver Twist (60:20)
(complete original score for the film by David Lean, prepared by Graham Parlett)
Malta G.C. Part 2 (12:33)
BBC Philharmonic, Yuri Torchinsky leader, Rumon Gamba conductor
Chandos 10126
[rec. BBC Manchester Studio 7, September 2002]

 

 


 

Amidst the hullabaloo surrounding Vernon Handley’s new set of the symphonies, it would be easy to overlook Chandos’s second, almost equally significant issue commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Bax’s death. The first complete recording of his score for David Lean’s 1947 film of Oliver Twist yields over 30 minutes previously unavailable music, much of it very high quality. Once again we might reflect on received wisdom that Bax’s creative fires petered out before World War 2, if scores such as this and the lovely Wind Concertante heard at the Royal Academy of Music earlier this year are anything to go by.

By all accounts Bax - unlike his friend Vaughan Williams, who was stimulated by the studio experience - found the whole business a devil of a trial; but if as he claimed the 64 year old composer felt the urge to “retire like a grocer”, there’s little to suggest it in a score that impresses by its variety, vitality and instrumental wizardry. David Lean was highly impressed by the unwilling Master’s facility, admiring the speed with which his composer delivered the goods for a last-minute shot of briars silhouetted against a baleful sky - the eerie string harmonics heard in the Storm sequence at the opening of the film. That epigram is but one of a host of moody orchestral conjurings which make Bax’s score such a feast.

Not everything is unfamiliar. A 16 minute suite was spliced together by the composer in collaboration with the film’s conductor, Muir Mathieson, played by the Philharmonia and issued on 78s to coincide with the film’s release. This treasure is currently available on Volume 1 of Pearl’s British Film Music series (GEM 0100). It takes wing from the solo piano statement of Oliver’s Theme together with its later variations - famously played by Harriet Cohen - and goes on with music associated with Pickpocketing; The Chase in which Oliver is wrongly arrested for picking Mr Brownlow’s pocket; and the scherzo Fagin’s Romp, where Alec Guinness dances comically around his den having his pockets picked by the Artful Dodger, to Oliver’s helpless laughter. The original suite concludes with the Finale, which utilises the big tune from In Memoriam, the unperformed 1916 orchestral elegy for Dublin’s Easter Rising firmly tucked away in Bax’s back drawer and not to see the light of day until 1998.

The 1986 ASV LP with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Eric Parkin’s solo piano under Kenneth Alwyn was issued a few years later on their White Line Music for Films CD label (WHL 2058), but is sadly no longer available. It features a more substantial suite, adding amongst other things the Prelude, a short version of The Storm, the Sleepless Night preceding Oliver’s escape from Sowerberry’s undertakers to London, and a larger helping of the scene where Nancy betrays Oliver’s whereabouts to Mr Brownlow. This ASV version is by no means a back number. It has a sure sense of theatre, strong playing and recording, and scores a point over the new issue by including the whole of Bax’s 1942 music for the film documentary Malta G.C.

Chandos can only find space for a 12 minute torso of Malta, the second and superior half of the score featuring an extended sequence devoted to Work and Play, and the triumphant finale reincarnated in 1953 as the Coronation March. Bax’s Malta music has echoes, maybe too many, of Bliss’s for Things To Come, without the memorable melodic qualities of that great score. Rumon Gamba and the BBC Philharmonic make out a good enough case for Malta G.C., but Oliver Twist remains the raison d’etre of their CD.

Graham Parlett was commissioned by the Bax Trust to shape Bax’s welter of music, including material either dropped from the film or never used. This involved him in some detective work on the soundtrack and those original 78s, the reordering of some shorter cues into continuous sequences, and a few transpositions up or down a semitone. Dr. Parlett is to be congratulated on the result, a substantial 60 minute suite more or less following the film sequentially, and featuring over half an hour of ‘new’ music, nearly all of high quality. The only insuperably difficult choice was the closing sequence, brassily triumphant in the film, or winding down to the quiet, reflective ending Bax originally wrote - and preferred when it came to recording the suite with Mathieson. Dr. Parlett cuts the Gordian knot by including both versions, which may induce a sense of deja vu but offers programming choice according to personal taste.

From the new material I’d highlight the extended Storm sequence, passionate, scarily chromatic - and now almost a miniature Bax tone poem all by itself; the drooping march portraying the workhouse inmates Picking oakum; and Oliver sent to bed amongst the coffins. This last is a remarkable example of Bax’s visual imagination at work. Sul ponticello strings and mocking, muted brass are jumped by a skeletal xylophone, before Oliver blows out his candle (scampering woodwind) to banish the mock-horrors. Graphically swift, this vignette gives the lie to anyone prone to accuse Bax of the inability to write with economy, concision and wit.

There’s also an unexpected amount of fast music in Oliver Twist, notably the famous Chase sequence. If Gamba does not quite capture the harum-scarum danger of Mathieson’s original, the BBC Philharmonic’s playing is exciting throughout, poetic in the more sensitive sections, alive to the chamber-quality wit as well as the lush romantic moods inherent in Bax’s varied score. The last comic nuance of Fagin’s Romp may be sacrificed in favour of its manic energy, and Paul Janes’s solo piano certainly misses the delicacy of Miss Cohen’s charming original, but these are small quibbles in the face of such big-hearted, urgent music making.

Manchester’s BBC Studio 7 provides the ideal acoustic for Chandos’s demonstration-quality sound, richer if just as detailed as for the Handley-Bax cycle set down in the same venue. Presentation, as with the rest of Chandos’s admirable Movies series, is spectacularly good. There are stills from both films, an introductory note by Lewis Foreman and - most valuably - Graham Parlett’s full description of each track in the Oliver Twist score. In sum, here be treasure, not just for Baxians but for anyone interested in exploring this classic score of British cinema in depth. Graham Parlett and the Chandos forces between them have done the composer proud.

© Christopher Webber 2003