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BRITISH FILM MUSIC - volumes 1-3 - various orchestras and conductors - PEARL GEM 0100; 0101; 0141 (available separately)
Vol. 1
Brian EASDALE

The Red Shoes (1948): Prelude; Ballet
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS

Scott of the Antarctic (1948)
Arnold BAX

Oliver Twist (1948)
John IRELAND (arr. Ernest IRVING)

The Overlanders (1946)
Arthur BLISS

Men of Two Worlds (1946): Baraza
Lord BERNERS

Nicholas Nickleby

Charles WILLIAMS

While I Live (1947): Incidental Music; Dream of Olwen
PEARL GEM 0100 [74.39]
Vol. 2
Arthur BLISS

Things to Come (1936)
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS

Coastal Command (1942)
49th Parallel (1941)
The Story of a Flemish Farm (1943)
Arnold BAX

Malta G.C. (1943)
Richard ADDINSELL

Dangerous Moonlight - The Warsaw Concerto

Guy WARRACK

Theirs is the Glory - Men of Arnhem (1945)
Clifton PARKER

Western Approaches - Seascape (1944)
Hubert BATH

Cornish Rhapsody (1944)
PEARL GEM 0101 [79.31]
Vol. 3
William WALTON

The First of the Few (1942)
Henry V (1944)
Miklos ROZSA

Spellbound - theme (1940)
Anthony COLLINS

The Saga of Odette (1950)
William ALWYN

Desert Victory - March (1943)
The Rake's Progress (1945)
Allan GRAY

This Man is Mine (1946)
Benjamin FRANKEL

Sleeping Car to Trieste (1948)
So Long at the Fair (1950) Carriage and Pair ... Long Forgotten Melody
Mischa SPOLIANSKY

A Voice in the Night (1946)
John GREENWOOD

Hungry Hill (1946)
Gordon JACOB

Esther Waters - Derby Day 1886 (1947)
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS

The Loves of Joanna Godden (1947)
Lambert WILLIAMSON

Woman Hater (1948)
Arthur WILKINSON

The Weaker Sex (1948)
PEARL GEM 0141 [74.39]


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Pearl's three discs, issued in quickish succession several years ago, survey British film music from the highways (Bax, Bliss, VW and Ireland) and the byways (Greenwood, Gray, Jacob, Parker and Warrack).

What are we hearing? What we are not hearing is the sound of the original soundtracks except in the case of Dangerous Moonlight on Vol. II. Instead Pearl have harvested from here and there both commercial and promotional 78s made usually within months of the film's release. These 78rpm discs were made for commercial sale and for private or promotional purposes. The latter material falls into two categories: Rank's private 78 series promoted the studio's film; BBC discs used to permit broadcasts in the middle of the night to the Empire and beyond. Copies of the BBC material were often distributed to radio stations worldwide in the interests of promoting British music.

The recordings were made during the period 1935-50 although most are concentrated in the years 1946-48. The sound is historic and in mono … so be warned. The worst sounding is, perhaps not surprisingly given its soundtrack provenance, the Warsaw Concerto played by Louis Kentner.

Easdale was much associated with the Archers Productions (Pressburger and Powell). Here he is represented by the music for The Red Shoes. The extended ballet and, for that matter, the prelude, are full of exotic Gallic and Russian hues but with an English overlay. This is the stuff that would have incited Diaghilev to a new production with designs by Bakst or Roerich if only Easdale's life had intersected with Diaghilev's.

The Williamson and Wilkinson tracks are nice to have but are of the frothy costume-drama type you find in both the Alwyn (vol.2 Chandos) and Frankel (CPO) compilations. Speaking of Frankel, his famous music for So long at the Fair - Carriage and Pair is as charming and subtle as ever though here with a finish that simply peters out rather than the 'concert ending' I thought I had heard in other recordings. As music you should think of this in the same approachable category as Delius's La Calinda and Eric Fogg's Sea Sheen (now there's a project for the next ASV collection of rarities).

Frankel's Sleeping Car to Trieste is a fine example of railway music played at full tilt with the the pistons thrashing. Both Murder on the Orient Express (Richard Rodney Bennett) and Pacific 231 (Honegger) start slowly. This work cuts in at full pelt almost immediately. Railway music buffs need to add this disc to their shelves.

As some readers may know, I am an out and out Baxian. However all but the last two tracks of the Oliver Twist suite from the film music are lavender water Bax and arrive complete with effetely tinkling piano. This is effeminate stuff rather than feminine; lady-like rather than seductive. Bax is here too tame by half: more Springtime in Sussex and the Faure Variations than Winter Legends and the Sixth Symphony. Things pick up considerably in the last two tracks and Fagin's Romp is given a virtuoso luge ride of precipitate celerity and edge-of-seat precision. Bracket this with Golovanov's breathlessly hurtling recording of Mendelssohn's Scherzo. Malta GC is much darker than I had remembered and had more of the atmosphere of prime Bax than the Twist score. The complete Twist film music will be issued by Chandos (BBCPO conducted by the rising star Rumon Gamba) before very long.

Vaughan Williams came late in life to film. However he took to the medium like a proverbial duck to water. He saw film music as part of his work for a war in which he was now too old to serve in the Forces. He had seen active service in the Great War (the Pastoral Symphony being redolent of his experiences in France).

Scott of the Antarctic is a post-War film. Its use of colour and authentic locations made quite a splash at the time enhanced by music here transferred from a double-sided Plum label 78. This is well enough known now but hearing the ingenious use of a panoply of 'spiels and 'phones and the haunting deployment of vocalisation by solo soprano (Margaret Ritchie) this reinforces the evidence that some composers feel greater freedom to experiment in the cinema rather than in the concert hall.

Coastal Command and Flemish Farm are taken from BBC broadcast transcription discs. Coastal Command tends to blandness in the rum-ti-tum Prelude but improves with the section depicting the flying boat closing with the German raider. A much fuller suite, digitally recorded, is encountered on a Cloud Nine (now ASV Whiteline) CD of British film music.

The Dawn Scene from The Story of a Flemish Farm, with its prominent role for solo violin, is poignantly done and is all the more affecting for the later doom-laden climax, prophetic of the plot which involves sacrifice and death in Nazi-occupied Belgium. Unused 'chips' from this score found their way into the Sixth Symphony. Hearing it again now it is surprisingly Delian. The year previously (1942) the composer had celebrated his seventieth birthday. Amongst the tribute pieces commissioned by the BBC was Constant Lambert's Aubade Héroïque.

The Prelude from 49th Parallel is quite another matter. This, with its wide-ranging epic theme, ascends the same lyrical heights as his best concert music of the 1940s. The Joanna Godden scenes are presented in two groups each with a single track of about four and a half minutes. In general this music is soft and unemphatic. Scenes such as Martin drowned at Dungeness (a touch of RVW’s opera Riders to the Sea?) and Burning of the sheep have more grit and atmosphere. Several times I thought the music was more in keeping with the threatening Dickensian mists of another marshland - the desolation in which Pip encounters Magwitch.

Something similar to this series has been done once before though nothing like so extensively. In the very early 1990s EMI Classics briefly had CDGO 2059 in its catalogue paCked to to the gunwhales with film music extracts and superbly documented. Of course this was an isolated CD and inevitably a less inclusive presentation - one disc as against Pearl's three. The EMI disc rather bucked the trend by anthologising British film music from the less obvious corners. It had the advantage of having access to sound documents closer to the source than those generally accessible to Pearl.

Pearl have cut their sound archive 'cake' from various angles. Not all that long ago I reviewed Pearl's issue of the first Boult recording of Vaughan Williams' Sixth Symphony. All the RVW film music tracks on these three discs were added to that CD as fillers.

The Bliss Things to Come tracks on volume II are fascinating and make the disc an essential purchase for Bliss enthusiasts. These Decca tracks were set down in 1936, a year after the launch of the film. The film did moderately well on both sides of the Atlantic but Bliss's music easily outstripped popularity at the cinema. Decca issued four sides of original music and two sides dubbed from the film conducted by Muir Mathieson. Bliss had recorded four other sides and these are included here having been discovered by Jonathan Dobson among Sir Henry Wood's papers deposited at the RAM. These recovered sides are The Prologue (tr.1), the March (tr.3) and two discs making up the Epilogue (tr.7). The Baraza track on Vol. I sounds better on the Dutton CD that also includes Bliss conducting the Colour Symphony.

The Warrack march (Theirs is the Glory) is jaunty and, unlike Alwyn's very decent Desert Victory march, rather forgettable. The Alwyn suffers from some high end damage by contrast with the superb audio quality of the Waltz from Sleeping Car to Trieste - like poignant ballet music. The Alwyn Calypso is a decidedly sleepy calypso but soon picks up the Caipira-like motoric energy found in the Sleeping Car music. Parker's Western Approaches - Seascape is another matter altogether - a splendid evocation of dawn at sea, flurries of ice-cold spray, all grimly heroic. Speaking of which we come to Collins' music for Odette which in addition to the foreboding also gives us a sedate waltz - a memory of happier times in the life of Odette Churchill. It is conducted by Charles Williams. Bath's Love Story has the darling of the concert hall and Bax's lover, Harriet Cohen, at the piano for the Cornish Rhapsody - a subset of the Warsaw Concerto. Charles Williams' Dream of Olwen (from the 1947 While I Live) is played by another master of British light music (look him up on his newly established website). This is delightful if caramel sweet stuff but packs a slender yet memorable clout.

Psychological scores such as Spellbound must also include the masterful Powell and Pressburger fantasy A Matter of Life and Death, music by Allan Gray superbly carried off by Charles Williams’ conducting the Queen's Hall Light Orchestra on Columbia. The Gray music for This Man is Mine oozes facile charm but fades almost as soon as it is heard.

I seem to recall reading some uncomplimentary stories about Spoliansky's role in the industry. His 1946 music for Wanted for Murder is played by Eric Harrison (piano) with the Queen's Hall Orchestra conducted by Charles Williams. Tense atmosphere but forgettable out of filmic context. John Greenwood's choppy Waltz into Jig is impudently flashy. Gordon Jacob's boisterous and well-constructed music for the film adaptation of George Moore's novel Esther Waters is taken from a Rank Film promotional 78 as are the Alwyn Sleeping Car, Lambert Williamson and Arthur Wilkinson tracks. Williamson is commercially suave in his two tracks from the music for Woman Hater (1948) with Dinner at Lady Datchett's indebted to Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet score. The Wilkinson tracks are smooth and agreeably facile - commercial with no aspirations or achievements beyond the illustrative and transient moment. Berners' Nickleby score while well polished is pretty much in the same category. It can also be heard on a Symposium CD that also includes the Unicorn-Kanchana collection of Berners' songs and piano solos.

The commission for Ireland's music for The Overlanders was lucrative but its production cost the composer dear. Neither Ireland nor his friend Bax took to the drudgery of film music with the duck-to-water aptitude of Vaughan Williams, Alwyn or Frankel. Still the eight or so minutes of music with its brusque heartlessness makes it one of the monuments of British film music. There are some pastoral moments as well (tr. 13, 4.24).

The notes are by Roger Thomas and they give us the essentials. Typos are few and far between - in fact I found only one: It is not Clifford Parker but Clifton Parker. Perhaps someone was confusing the composer of the music for Western Approaches with Hubert Clifford who also wrote film music as well as a single and quite filmic Symphony (the latter recorded on Chandos).

For anyone wanting to experience the closest approach to the authentic sound of British film music from its first golden era these three CDs are indispensable. The coverage is wide-ranging and generous.

Rob Barnett

 



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