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Great Movie Themes 2
Danny ELFMAN Batman theme [2:18]
Henry MANCINI The Pink Panther [3:54]
Lalo SCHIFRIN Mission Impossible - suite [4:55]
Francis LAI Theme from Love Story [4:35]
John WILLIAMS Theme from Jurassic Park [5:40]
Nino ROTA Romeo and Juliet [3:40]
John WILLIAMS March from Superman [4:18]
Gabriel YARED The English Patient [5:41]
Nino ROTA The Godfather [4:00]
John WILLIAMS 'Can you read my mind?'/Love theme from Superman [5:06]
Klaus BADELT Pirates of the Caribbean [5:32]
Stanley MYERS Introduction and Cavatina from The Deerhunter [6:56]
Carl DAVIS The French Lieutenant's Woman [4:28]
Stephen WARBECK Shakespeare in Love [6:44]
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Carl Davis
rec. St. George's Hall Blackburn, 1-2 July 2008
NAXOS 8.572111 [67:47] 
Experience Classicsonline

I've really struggled with this disc - so much of it is very fine indeed; excellent production values allied to superb orchestral playing and all for about £6.00. Why is it then that it leaves me feeling essentially dissatisfied? If ever a disc were to be counted less than the sum of its parts this is it. The positives first; the RLPO is currently in fine form. I suspect local concert-goers in the North West of England have known that it has been playing as well as this for many years. But it is the presence of a charismatic young conductor and a Naxos recording contract which has helped spread its name internationally. All of the orchestral sections play with power and accuracy - the strings bringing off the tricky passage work in the John Williams selections with aplomb. The brass are clearly having a ball - the sound is full and powerful and the horns in particular roister away to stunning effect - listen to the roof-raising counter-melodies they play at the climax of the Mission Impossible Suite on track 3.

The orchestra has decamped from its home at the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool to record this album at St George's Hall in Blackburn - volume 1 in this series was recorded in Liverpool. This provides the engineers with a far more resonant and fuller acoustic to work with, successfully in the main, which suits the full-blooded nature of many film scores well. The lower end resonance this allows is immediately apparent right at the start of track 1. Just a few seconds in listen to the huge sound generated by the extra 5th string on the low double basses. As ever, this kind of acoustic provides pros and cons gaining weight with the occasional sacrificing of detail - you can here the resonance wallowing away after the end of March from Superman. To accommodate this the engineers have brought some microphones in close to pick up on detail. In film scores this is perfectly legitimate but there do occur a couple of odd balances - the Pink Panther features an overly close and insistent triangle and in Jurassic Park the glockenspiel figure that should twinkle behind the main musical line features as a (superbly played!) broken arpeggio exercise. The production has emphasised the 'cinematic' feel by providing a very wide sound-stage left to right and a huge dynamic range. This is the kind of spectacular engineering that was never found only a few years back on any but the most premium priced of labels so congratulations to all those involved - not the most natural sounding disc Naxos have produced but one of the most dynamic.

So far so good, but who is this disc aimed at and who chose the programme? Perhaps there is a subtleness to the musical sequence here that eludes me but I find it almost schizophrenic in the way we go from menacing Elfman to cool Mancini via dull Yared and moody Rota. As a kind of 'guess what's coming next' there is a certain fun interest to it but I can't imagine returning to this disc often except to dip into some specific tracks. As the second volume in this series it feels like fourteen tracks plucked at random and thrown together. Of course, this cannot be the case but that is the impression I get. I checked the programme on volume 1 - I have not heard this disc - and it's a very similar mix of composers from the last twenty years or so of cinema. Without wishing to labour the point I cannot imagine who chose this sequence and thought it had any kind of structure. This kind of inconsistency even infects the track listing - see above exactly as listed on the CD. We have a Batman THEME but The English Patient. It is a very dull game to argue about what has been included and what has been left out - but if you are celebrating the best of cinema how can there be two Nino Rota tracks and the saccharinely glutinous theme from Love Story and none by Jarre, Goodwin, Waxman. Herrmann, Korngold, Steiner, Goldsmith, Morricone, Rózsa, Newman, Tiomkin to name but a few? How on earth can Gabriel Yared's wan theme from the English Patient or Stephen Warbeck's meandering Shakespeare in Love merit any kind of selection over any of the above composer's most minor work? But to veer back to the positive - the unnamed pianist in the Yared theme plays with real limpid beauty and is most naturally caught by the engineers. The liner-notes explain that this piece follows on from a sequence in the movie where a character plays some Bach on the piano - the music we end up with is a vague wander around the kind of chordal sequence Bach might have used if he was really having an off day! Listening to this disc several times my notes pick out the same details each time; namely the recurring excellence of the orchestra. A highlight of the disc is Carl Davis's own The French Lieutenant's Woman. The string principals of the RLPO are absolutely magnificent and the piece emerges with great beauty and warmth. Davis recorded an 11:00 minute suite from the movie with the RPO on their own long defunct Tring/RPO label but I have not had a chance to compare the two. Likewise, on the otherwise overly slow and laboured Superman love theme there is a very telling and exquisite contribution at the start from the oboe.

I have yet to comment of the quality of the interpretations here. The conductor is a long-time associate of the RLPO, Carl Davis. The best I can say of his work is that he is a safe pair of hands. Little offends but little delights on the interpretative front. Tempi are prone to be fractionally steady. He rarely risks anything at either metronomic extreme and within a tempo there is almost no expressive ebb and flow at all. This keeps the music from turning emotional screws when necessary. The afore-mentioned Love theme from Superman is a perfect case in point - the tempo is held back making the initial rocking pulsating figure lack urgency - this is both a love theme and a flight theme and in Davis's interpretation we stay resolutely earthbound. The umbrella comparison for nearly all this music has to be Eric Kunzel with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra on Telarc. Over the years they have recorded literally dozens of Film theme compilations. In orchestral execution terms this new disc is their equal but as visceral exciting experiences they are left at the starting post. One other interpretative quirk - tradition takes the opening of Superman at a steady heroic pace with a quickening after six or so bars into the main theme proper. Davis conducts at a single tempo. Which once again robs the music of a belt-tightening urgency and sense of release. The Batman Theme has been lifted from a more extended suite and while one of the most exciting tracks here it ends as abruptly as the excision from this suite would imply. The Pink Panther is probably the low point of the disc - the one major engineering failure - as in the concerto for triangle mentioned above - allied to a leaden tempo, a bland saxophone and even the normally swaggering RLPO brass can't quite capture that sassy brash big band feel essential in this piece. Nino Rota and Francis Lai really are not to my taste although the strings of the RLPO build a fine and impassioned climax in Romeo and Juliet. The less said about Klaus Badelt's Pirates of the Caribbean the better - enough to use the words formulaic, derivative, predictable and with the worst middle thirty two bars of orchestral/disco nothingness I've heard in a long time. How can this possibly be included on a 'Great' album? One last gem though - how lovely to see Christopher Palmer's name credited as the arranger of Stanley Myer's Cavatina. Another maudlin tune I'm not overly fond of but when it is handled as deftly as Palmer does here all you can't help but be swept along by it - more of a treatment of themes rather than an arrangement and none the worse for that. As is ever the case with this kind of album the music is prepared by a host of different arrangers. Mostly with great success. Some details I like more than others - a pointless canonic figure using the basic Mission Impossible motif seems fussy and only there to fill out the arrangement. Who knows, perhaps it's a straight lift from the original score but even if it is it should have been cut as padding. Again, in programming terms why end the disc on the emotional downer of Shakespeare in Love? - at 6:44 the second longest track on the disc.

So to conclude - I'm sure this will sell well. Hear it to enjoy the quality of British orchestral playing that is now the norm throughout the country caught in excellent and opulent sound. But go to just about any other similar compilation for a better balanced programme, more deserving composers and compositions - John Williams is quite marvellous albeit over-represented here - and better conducted.

Great Orchestra, Great Sound, Poor choice of music routinely conducted.

Nick Barnard



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