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Classic Cinema Part 2
Complete track-listing at the foot of this review
rec. 1963-2006. ADD/DDD
SONY-BMG 88697290382 [3 CDs: 72:00 + 60:00 + 66:00]

Experience Classicsonline

What is a ‘cinema classic’? Purists would probably cite Batteleship Potemkin, Citizen Kane, The Searchers, Psycho, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now and Blade Runner, to name but a few. These are works that either changed the way we looked at movies or helped define the period in which they were made. Nowadays the term ‘cinema classic’ is synonymous with ‘blockbuster’, which is probably why so many of the latter crop up in this collection. Not all have particularly original soundtracks, and some even make use of ‘bleeding chunks’ from the classical repertoire. Such fall-backs are risky, but where the music is woven so skilfully into the visual narrative - Johann and Richard Strauss in Kubrick’s 2001, for instance - it’s often impossible to hear the music without instantly recalling the film.

Sony have opted for the more elastic definition of ‘cinema classics’, with music from fairly recent titles, such as Titanic and The Da Vinci Code. These don’t sit at all comfortably with the likes of Brief Encounter and The Gadfly, probably chosen for their classical music content rather than their historical significance. I can understand a themed collection - by genre, director or composer, say - but here it seems as if Sony executives flicked their way through a copy of Halliwell’s, circling entries at random. The truth is probably much more mundane, a cost-effective compilation that allows Sony to plunder their back catalogue. Not a hanging offence, of course, but it does strike me as a very lazy way to sell music.

It’s worth pointing out that most of these excerpts are not OSTs (official soundtracks), but were recorded and released at a later date. Not surprisingly, they depend on orchestras such as the City of Prague Philharmonic, the Philharmonia, the Royal Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra. Conductors are rarely credited and the mix of venues and sound balances doesn’t make for a seamless musical whole. Indeed, I sensed a fair amount of audio intervention, presumably designed to create a somewhat exaggerated cinema acoustic. That’s all very well at your local Odeon, but it’s rather fatiguing here. Grumbles aside, some fine film composers are represented here, a number of their scores genuinely interesting and enjoyable.

CD1
The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is undoubtedly successful, not least for Johnny Depp’s campy portrayal of pirate Jack Sparrow. The music for all three films is by the German composer Hans Zimmer, who certainly knows how to write a big, sweeping tune à la Korngold. There is plenty of drive and energy in this excerpt from the latest in the series, Dead Man’s Chest, the City of Prague Philharmonic doing the honours. This feels like movie music, big, bold and designed to stretch the cinema’s sound system to the max. And then it’s the turn of John Williams, probably the most symphonic of modern film composers. He, too, wrote some splendid tunes for that other successful franchise, the Superman movies. Here the Love theme from the first film sounds lush but not overly sentimental.

All very different from David Arnold’s score for the remake of Casino Royale, one of the more recent - and to my mind least successful - Bond films. Now this is a franchise that has done well over the years - not least for John Barry’s iconic scores and those sexy opening titles - but the arrival of Daniel Craig as 007 has signalled a change of emphasis, echoed in Arnold’s sober, somewhat austere score. Nothing laid back about Claudio Abbado and the LSO’s rendition of Mussorgsky’s St John’s Night on a Bare Mountain, used to grotesque effect in Disney’s Fantasia. It’s fast and fizzy, but as recorded here it lacks weight and refinement. There’s another classical entry on this disc, the Romance from The Gadfly, by Shostakovich. This is one of the more random - and puzzling - selections here, as most people are hardly likely to have since this old, Soviet-era flick at their local multiplex..

Sandwiched between these two ‘classical’ pieces is Danny Elfman’s haunting score for Tim Burton’s dark fable, Edward Scissorhands. A much younger Depp is suitably strange in the title role, the film’s highly individual visual style nicely complemented by Elfman’s fairy-tale score. No hint of fantasy in Nino Rota’s music for that other franchise, The Godfather. The film has been much imitated - wittily so in Alan Parker’s musical Bugsy Malone - but Coppola’s grim tale of Mafia mayhem has never been bettered. Rota’s music, passionate and lyrical, is well played by the Prague band; the recording isn’t bad either. There is passion aplenty in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, a rather superficial adaptation of Louis de Bernières’ bestseller. Stephen Warbeck’s score, represented here by ‘Pelagia’s Song’, is standard cinematic fare, nothing more.

And so to another genuine classic, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, its dark urban landscape superbly evoked in Bernard Herrmann’s mix of orchestral menace - listen to that pounding bass drum - and a languid, bluesy sax. As I write, Scorsese has been awarded a Lifetime Achievement BAFTA, an honour he well deserves. Very different from the Boy’s Own heroics of 633 Squadron, for which Ron Goodwin penned a rousing Waltonian score, complete with whooping horns. It’s a quintessential British film score of the period, as thrilling as Elmer Bernstein’s for The Great Escape. All very nostalgic and very well played by the Prague band.

Michael Kamen’s electro-acoustic score for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves has the backing of the Royal Philharmonic. The music is somewhat anodyne, the sort of thing one hears in hairdressers and public places; an eminently missable film, redeemed only by Alan Rickman’s supremely nasty Sheriff of Nottingham. In another league altogether is the magical realism of Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso, with an elegant, wistful score by the ever reliable Ennio Morricone. Now this really is a classic, a reflection on boyhood and homage to an old Sicilian cinema and its feisty proprietor, played to perfection by the late lamented Philippe Noiret. It’s charming, simple music that really does bring back memories of this life-enhancing film.

Kenneth Branagh had some sizeable boots to fill with Henry V, and for a ‘short-arsed, fat-faced Irishman’ - his words, not mine - he gives a powerful performance as Shakespeare’s warrior king. As Olivier realised this is one film that needs a Walton to do it justice; that said, Patrick Doyle’s score is pretty impressive. This vocal extract, ‘Non Nobis Domine’, is stirring, but this version is no match for the top-notch OST with Simon Rattle and the CBSO. And moving from the sublime to the faintly ridiculous, Saint-Saëns’ ‘Organ’ symphony, as used in the adventures of Babe, the talking pig. It’s the vintage E. Power Biggs/Eugene Ormandy recording from CBS - all very brisk and efficient. Quite why the piece was chosen is a mystery to me, but perhaps Carnival of the Animals had something to do with it. In Hollywood any explanation is entirely plausible.

CD2
The late Michael Crichton’s scientific fantasy Jurassic Park turned out surprisingly well on film, not least for Steven Spielberg’s taut direction and its remarkable special effects. Equally special is this excerpt from John Williams’ panoramic score, with its (slightly shaky) horn calls at the start. Thereafter the music has a Straussian amplitude that suits the width of the screen and the height of its Cretaceous cast. (Somehow, Cretaceous Park doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it?) Hearing this glorious music confirms for me that Williams is the natural heir to the great film composers of the past. Speaking of which, Alexandre Desplat’s music for The Queen is another of those scores that harks back to the pomp and circumstance of Walton and Elgar, but with a delicate, interior sub-theme that captures the monarch’s private persona rather well.

One of Stephen King’s better adaptations for the screen, The Shawshank Redemption boasts splendid performances from jailbirds Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. The liberating sounds of this Act III aria from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro - taken from the old Karl Böhm recording - is most effectively harnessed here. Delicious, creamy singing from Gundula Janowitz and Edith Mathis. John Williams returns with cellist Yo-Yo Ma for the vaguely oriental score to Seven Years in Tibet. From the opening harp swirl it’s clear we are back in symphonic mode. It’s a pleasing mix, with Ma as eloquent as ever. Unlike many of the other excerpts in this set this is the official soundtrack, with the composer conducting.

One of Sir Michael Caine’s earlier films and a regular TV matinée, Zulu is another of Ron Goodwin’s atmospheric scores. From its warlike timps to swirling harp figures this suggests both both the impending battle and the wide open veld. A solid historical adventure from the 1960s, with a score to match. On to other battles, this time with the evil Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Patrick Doyle penned this refulgent excerpt from this, the penultimate film in the present series. The ever-reliable RPO is in fine form, as indeed it is in Dario Marinelli’s elegant, string- and piano-led theme for Mrs Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Again, this is no match the Decca OST, the mercurial Jean Yves Thibaudet at the keyboard. Far less appealing is Evelyn Chen’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Philharmonia under Leonard Slatkin. That said, Brief Encounter is one of David Lean’s most enduring pictures, with Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard at their stoic, ever so British best. The music is surely a distraction, and in this performance it’s simply horrible.

Back to the present - well, sort of - and if you can’t stomach the bizarre tale of Civil War captain Tom Cruise sent to modernise the Japanese army, then Hans Zimmer’s middle-of-the-road score for The Last Samurai might make this tosh a little easier to endure. Some pretty spectacular Kodo-like drumming, though, and the recording is better than some. Another war and it’s Ron Goodwin again, in the music for Alistair McLean’s wartime pot-boiler, Where Eagles Dare. Its martial drums and jaunty tunes are just right for this tale of derring-do in the snowy wilderness below Schloss Adler. A genre classic; indeed, as a youngster I loved every heart-stopping minute of it. 

Franco Zeffirelli’s take on Romeo and Juliet was considered a little risqué at the time, Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey pictured on the LP in soft focus and sans clothes. Not vintage Rota, perhaps, but this excerpt has a real sense of ardour that stands out in otherwise rather soupy music. No complaints about Brian Gascoigne’s somewhat generic take on John Barry’s Bond theme which, like the obligatory eye candy, helped to define this long-running franchise. Suave, upbeat and ever so seductive it’s certainly a classic tune. Not so the electro-acoustic arrangement of Dolly Parton’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ from The Bodyguard. Its sentimental country and western roots are unmistakable, but the very ubiquity of this music - I used to hear it in the office canteen day after day - makes it memorable fro all the wrong reasons.

But what better piece to end this disc than Jerry Goldsmith’s edgy, Western-style score for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The TV series is a true classic but, at the risk of offending Trekkies the world over, I’m not so sure the films will wear as well. As for Goldsmith, he was nothing if not prolific, with a career going back to 1957. His Star Trek score was nominated for an Academy Award, but I much prefer his music for Polanski’s Chinatown and Peter Hyams’ Outland, a loose remake of High Noon set in outer space. And I vividly recall his music for another McLean effort, the bio-terror flick The Satan Bug. That’s the trouble with discs like these, they usually trigger a trip down memory lane.

CD3
Dan Brown’s best-selling book, The Da Vinci Code, is surprisingly compulsive, which is more than I can say for the film. Given its Grail theme, it’s no surprise that Robert Harvey’s score includes a sepulchral ‘Kyrie’, the Crouch End Festival Chorus pressed into service once more. In a similar vein is THE Patrick Cassidy aria ‘Vide Cor Meum’, used in both Hannibal (2001) and Kingdom of Heaven (2005). It’s a rather anonymous piece, but it’s reasonably well sung. Equally anodyne is the updated electro-acoustic version of Michel Legrand’s classic score for the 1968 film The Thomas Crown Affair. Call me old fashioned, but I still think the unlikely pairing of Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway in the original is far preferable to that of Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo in the remake. That said, ‘Windmills of Your Mind’ is still a very hummable tune.

Earlier I mentioned that occasionally classical music used in the movies becomes inextricably bound up with the visual narrative. Regrettably, the lovely ‘Adagietto’ from Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 will forever be linked with Dirk Bogarde’s tortured portrayal of von Aschenbach in Visconti’s Death in Venice. The version recorded here, Daniele Gatti’s with the RPO, is a tad lugubrious for my liking, but at least it’s reasonably well recorded. James Horner, who made his name with another doom-laden flick, Titanic, co-wrote the overblown score for the swords and sandals epic Troy. This is standard cinematic fare which, or so I’m reliably informed, falls way short of the rejected score by Gabriel Yared (The English Patient, The Talented Mr Ripley).

As the world of film music is male dominated, it’s a pleasure to hear music from the sole female contributor on this set, Rachel Portman. Her score for Jane Austen’s Emma is most enjoyable, mixing as it does Georgian elegance with a soaring lyricism. James Horner returns with a snippet from the testosterone-charged epic Braveheart. By the time this elegiac music appears all the violence is done and Braveheart has been put to death. It’s suitably lush but quite without feeling. Not a good example of the film composer’s art and, if it were needed, more ammunition for those who feel Horner is somewhat overrated.

John Barry is rather more successful with the main theme from Somewhere in Time, one of Christopher Reeve’s less memorable pictures. Full of genteel charm and feeling it’s warmly played by the Scottish National Orchestra. And how like Miklós Rózsa’s Love theme from Ben Hur it sounds, although the latter is much closer to Korngold in terms of symphonic weight and sheer opulence. Very different from the rather androgynous sound-world of Horner’s Troy. That said, there are some good things in the latter’s imposing score for Titanic - a Stygian bass drum beating like a giant propshaft below decks, for instance. But then he spoils it all with some electro-acoustic mush that might have you rushing for the lifeboats.

Classical music makes a brief return with The Sorcerer’s Apprentice from Disney’s Fantasia. After seeing that sequence it’s hard to dissociate Dukas’ piece from images of Mickey the magician. Happily, the music is played here in a rather enjoyable performance by the Orchestre Nationale de France under Leonard Slatkin. And we end with an arrangement of Lalo Schifrin’s score for Mission Impossible, another of those impossibly macho vehicles for Tom Cruise. From a martial, foot-tapping start it soon becomes another of those rhythmically insistent electro-acoustic loops that could pretty much go on forever. Fortunately, in this case it doesn’t.

There are some nuggets among the dross but you’ll have to look hard to find them. Of the younger generation of film composers Danny Elfman and Patrick Doyle are worth singling out; among the veterans are Ennio Morricone and John Williams, both of whom have had long and prestigious careers at the magic factory. But if I had to choose just one it would have to be John Williams, surely the natural successor to Waxman, Korngold and the other Hollywood greats. Trouble is, next to these giants the rest look like pygmies.

Dan Morgan

Complete track-listing

CD1
Hans ZIMMER (b. 1957)
Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest - Jack Sparrow (2006) [6:18]
John WILLIAMS (b. 1932)
Superman: The Movie - Love theme (1978) [5:07]
David ARNOLD (b. 1962)
Casino Royale - Vesper (2006) [1:50]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Fantasia - St. John's Night On The Bare Mountain (1940) [11:58]
Danny ELFMAN (b. 1953)
Edward Scissorhands - Main title (1990) [5:35]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
The Gadfly - Romance (1955) [6:30]
Nino ROTA (1911-1979)
The Godfather - Love theme (1972) [2:50]
Steven WARBECK (b. 1953)
Captain Corelli's Mandolin - Pelagia's Song (2001) [4:00]
Bernard HERRMANN (1911-1975)
Taxi Driver - Main theme (1976) [7:33]
Ron GOODWIN (1925-2003)
633 Squadron - Main theme (1963) [3:04]
Michael KAMEN (1948-2003)
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves - Everything I Do (I Do It For You) (1991) [4:02]
Ennio MORRICONE (b. 1928)
Cinema Paradiso - Main theme (1988) [3:37]
Patrick DOYLE (b. 1953)
Henry V - Non Nobis Domine (1989) [3:51]
Camille SAINT-SAENS (1835-1921)
Babe - Maestoso and Allegro from Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78 ‘Organ’ (1995) [7:20]

CD2
John WILLIAMS (b. 1932)
Jurassic Park - Main theme (1993) [5:39]
Alexandre DESPLAT (b. 1961)
The Queen (2006) [3:57]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
The Shawshank Redemption - Letter duet from The Marriage of Figaro (1994) [3:36]
John WILLIAMS (b. 1932)
Seven Years in Tibet - Main theme (1997) [7:15]
John BARRY (b. 1933)
Zulu - Main theme (1964) [2:31]
Patrick DOYLE (b. 1953)
Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire - Harry In Winter (2005) [3:03]
Dario MARINELLI (b. 1963)
Pride And Prejudice - Mrs Darcy (2005) [4:02]
Sergey RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Brief Encounter - Moderato from Piano Concerto No.2 (1945) [11:07]
Hans ZIMMER (b. 1957)
The Last Samurai - Safe Passage/The Way of the Sword (2003) [3:03]
Ron GOODWIN (1925-2003)
Where Eagles Dare - Main theme (1968) [3:03]
Nino ROTA (1911-1979)
Romeo and Juliet - Love theme (1968) [3:13]
John BARRY (b. 1933)
James Bond: Licence To Kill - Main theme (arrangement) [3:19]
Dolly PARTON (b. 1946)
The Bodyguard - I Will Always Love You (arrangement) (1992) [4:40]
Jerry GOLDSMITH (1929-2004)
Star Trek: The Motion Picture - The Enterprise (1979) [6:12]

CD3
Richard HARVEY (b. 1953)
The Da Vinci Code - Kyrie For The Magdalene (2006) [3:59]
Patrick CASSIDY (b. 1956)
Hannibal - Vide Cor Meum (2001) [3:06]
Michel LEGRAND (b. 1932)
The Thomas Crown Affair - Windmills of Your Mind (1968) [3:18]
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Death in Venice - Adagietto from Symphony No. 5 (1971) [10:16]
James HORNER (b. 1953)
Troy - Remember (2004) [6:12]
Rachel PORTMAN (b. 1960)
Emma - The Wedding/End titles (1996) [4:21]
James HORNER (b.1953)
Braveheart - End titles (1995) [7:48}
John BARRY (b. 1933)
Somewhere In Time - Theme (1980) [3:44]
Miklós RÓZSA (1907-1995)
Ben Hur - Love theme (1959) [4:39]
James HORNER (b. 1953)
Titanic - Main theme (1997) [7:08]
Paul DUKAS (1865-1935)
Fantasia - The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1940) [11:50]
Lalo SCHIFRIN (b. 1932)
Mission Impossible - Main theme (arrangement) (1996) [4:40] 

 


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