The Film Music of Arthur Benjamin and Leighton Lucas
Arthur BENJAMIN (1893-1960)
Suite from The Conquest of Everest (1953) [9:34]
The Storm Clouds Cantata from The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) [7:44]
Waltz and Hyde Park Galop from An Ideal Husband (1947) [7:11]
Leighton LUCAS (1903-1982)
Portrait of the Amethyst from Yangtse Incident (1957) [6:49]
Dedication from Portrait of Clare (1950) [3:38]
Prelude and Dam Blast from The Dam Busters (1954) [5:15]
Stage Fright Rhapsody from Stage Fright (1950) [4:54]
Suite from Ice Cold in Alex (1958) [9:19]
This Is York (1953) [9:26]
March-Prelude from Target for Tonight (1941) [3:04]
Abigail Sara (mezzo); Rob Court (organ)
Côr Caerdydd/Adrian Partington; Gwawr Owen
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Rumon Gamba
rec. BBC Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff Bay, Cardiff, Wales, 3-5 October 2011. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN10713 [67:58]
I knew Chandos had produced a steady stream of discs in their “Chandos Movies” series but I must admit some surprise when I realised that this was the 30th release. This does include some TV theme releases but the general thesis is clear; Chandos has shown an enduring and passionate commitment to recording classic film scores in general and those by British composers in particular. Production and presentation values are as high as ever in the current release and as with many collectors it is a delight to be able to hear scores in all their glory which previously were known only through the limited format of the family black and white television on a Sunday afternoon. Chandos stick to their tried and tested team of Philip Lane as collator and reconstructor-in-chief with Rumon Gamba on the podium. I think this is the first time the BBC National Orchestra of Wales have contributed to the series but they are such a fine orchestra and the Chandos engineers so experienced using the Hoddinott Hall in Cardiff that on sonics alone the disc is a winner.
While listening to this disc I’ve been trying to work out a succinct definition of a successful film score. The best I can come up with is; well-matched mood combined with melodic memorable fibre. Any film score needs the former to articulate or heighten the emotional goal of the scene playing out on the screen. If at the same time the composer can introduce melodic motifs that are both apt dramatically and memorable success is assured. Think of any score from Alexander Nevsky to Star Wars and the music heightens the drama and the tunes hook into your subconscious. Both the composers here are very strong indeed on mood, but I do find myself wondering about enduring melodies. Benjamin’s Conquest of Everest that opens the disc is a case in point; its full of heroic apt gestures skilfully handled. Divorced from the accompanying pictures it feels rather too generic to me. The strengths of the recording are immediately apparent - richly heraldic brass and secure warm strings but it sounds like an introduction waiting for a main theme. I am an admirer of Benjamin’s concert works and the craft on display here is not in doubt for a moment but this is highly competent rather than inspired writing. You wonder if Benjamin recognised this himself in that the only music of his here that he sanctioned for concert-hall use is also the most instantly memorable; the Waltz & Galop from An Ideal Husband. Bernard Herrmann recorded this with the National Philharmonic Orchestra on Decca and good though that is Gamba and his Welsh players are suave and more appropriately urbane - perhaps Herrmann was in one of his infamous tempers that day! Herrmann also features obliquely in the major Benjamin work here; the Storm Clouds Cantata famously provided the musical backdrop for the final chase through the Royal Albert Hall in Hitchcock’s “The man who knew too much”. The conductor on the rostrum in the Albert Hall being Bernard Herrmann - who so entertained the LSO with his stories from Hollywood that at the end of the filming they presented him with a book inscribed; “to the man who knows so much”. Herrmann did re-orchestrate the original Benjamin score doubling some parts and adding to others - it is not clear here in the Philip Lane edition if it follows Benjamin arr. Herrmann - one assumes so. Whoever contributed what its a wonderfully concentrated piece of hokum - in under eight minutes just about every Romantic musical gesture is incorporated. The performance here is very fine let down only by a underwhelming solo from mezzo Abigail Sara. It is not a major contribution and it is not a deal breaker but in its mediocrity it is rather surprising on a Chandos disc. Another modern recording is available where Elmer Bernstein conducts the RPO with a small-sounding Ambrosian Chorus. If pushed to choose, Bernstein would get the vote for the far more dramatic (and secure) soloist and an RPO who play with more cinematic sweep than their Welsh counterparts. The rest of the Bernstein programme is more fascinating Herrmann so perhaps get both!
Of the sixty-eight minutes of playing time the split is nearly exactly 2/3 - 1/3 in favour of Leighton Lucas. I love the idea that Lucas retired from dancing as part of that little known group the Diaghilev Ballets Russes at eighteen(!) and then started conducting the longest running British opera ever - Boughton’s Immortal Hour - at nineteen. Does the phrase ‘precociously talented’ seem appropriate somewhere around here? Yet for all that remarkable talent he will forever be cursed with the pub-quiz question “who wrote the not-famous bits of The Dambusters.” Odds and ends of his work have appeared on disc before but aside from the justly famous arrangement of music for the ballet Manon this is his first major exposure on a newly recorded disc. Again the level of craftsmanship is very high and when allied to a ‘good tune’ the result is superb. An example is the gorgeous ‘Theme’ from Portrait of the Amethyst - Yangtse Incident. This is a film I remember well from my Sunday afternoon matinees in front of the TV but I have no recollection of this theme at all. Here the cor anglais solo is played to perfection by Sarah-Jayne Porsmoguer - my only query is how such a lyrically idyllic theme fits into a film about a frigate being attacked by the Chinese. Lane’s speculative reconstruction of the piano-led Rhapsody from Stage Fright is another in the long line of ‘Olwen dreaming of Warsaw’ concertante works. The fact that Lucas worked with Addinsell reinforces the link although again it has to be admitted that within this sub-genre this work lacks the ‘big’ tune of the Warsaw Concerto or I Dream of Olwen or the drama and grittiness of a Herrmann Concerto Macabre. Lucas’ skill at handling an orchestra is evident in his orchestration of Robert Schumann’s Widmung which he used in the film Portrait of Clare. There is another striking passage in the Prelude from Ice Cold in Alex (a Sunday afternoon favourite) which presages John Williams’ Death Star/Imperial March theme from Star Wars rather strikingly [track 14 1:30]. Sadly the Dam Busters music is something of a disappointment - even Philip Lane hints as much in his liner by saying most of Lucas’ score is motivic variations on the central tune of the Coates march. The least significant film here - the British Transport Film This is York - actually gets some of the best music and interestingly this is the only score where the original written materials have survived. It is a travelogue of one guesses less than momentous worth - I kept thinking of the famous Peter Sellars skit “Balham - gateway to the South” but Lucas manages to tick all the pictorial boxes most effectively. The album closes the march from Target for Tonight which falls into the category of sub-Waltonian march that never quite arrives at the nobilmente trio tune you want it to. In essence I would say the music on this disc is of considerable craft and skill but ultimately none of it is first rank film music - perhaps we are nearing the bottom of this particular barrel of repertoire.
I have one other little doubt that just niggles away at the back of my brain. When comparing performances where possible - not for the first time in this series - I feel Gamba’s direction lacks that last ounce of belt-tightening, sinew-stiffening, grease-paint-roaring technicolour that can send a shiver down your spine. For all of those qualities - but not playing this repertoire - the old RCA Classic Film Scores series with Charles Gerhardt conducting the National Philharmonic Orchestra is still unbeatable. Here, everything is exceptionally well played, beautifully recorded and lovingly presented so why does it not excite me more? I would say the same of the Korngold and the Bax and Bliss in this series to name but three. Collectors twenty nine discs into the series won’t need me to help make up their minds and those less used to dipping their toes in the sea of cinema might well be recommended to try other volumes first - the early Alwyn and Arnold discs are absolute winners. A disc I have enjoyed hearing very much but one that will not often leave the shelf.
Exceptionally well played, beautifully recorded and lovingly presented.
see also reviews by Rob Barnett and John France
Chandos Movies review page