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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers

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Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)

The Roots of Heaven (1958) [34:02]

David Copperfield (1969) [28:04]

Moscow Symphony Orchestra/William Stromberg

rec. 4-7 April 2000, Mosfilm Studio, Moscow

previously released on Marco Polo 8.225167

NAXOS 8.573366 [62:09]

After nearly fifty years of enjoying classical music, I have yet to work out an ideal strategy for listening to film and ballet music divorced from the media for which it was originally intended.

Take the present score for The Roots of Heaven. There are twenty tracks or ‘cues’ derived from a film lasting in excess of two hours. The longest element — apart from the ‘Overture’ which was written as a separate piece in the manner of an operatic overture — is the violent ‘Elephant Hunt’. Most of the other cues are between one and two minutes in length. Sometimes they seem to finish in mid-sentence. Often there is a huge disparity in mood and emotion which in the film would be obscured by the progress of the dialogue and the screenplay. Fundamentally, this score does not seem to have an internal logic. Taken as individual elements, there is much here that is attractive to the ear. On the other hand, some of this music is clearly make-weight and was written ‘against the stop-watch’. All the above applies to the score for David Copperfield as well.

Another issue that exercises me is the plots themselves. For example, the story of The Roots of Heaven does not appeal to me — the underling morality is as vitally important today as it was then. It is not a film I would choose to watch. Again, I personally do not go for Dickens’ adaptations for the big screen. So, in both of these examples, the present recording of the musical scores do not act as an aide-memoire to my enjoyment or otherwise of the films.

So how can I engage with this CD? I try to think of a single ‘plot’ word or ‘dramatic situation that can be applied to the film. For example David Copperfield can be defined as ‘overcoming adversity’, concluding with a ‘positive outcome’. With The Roots of Heaven it would be ‘obsession’ and ‘battling the monster’. I would try to hold these ‘abstractions’ in my mind and largely forget any details of the film I know or have surmised. Only in this way can I genuinely appreciate the music.

All this said, it is imperative to emphasise that Arnold’s skill as a writer of melody and of orchestration is never more apparent to the listener than when these short tracks slip by. For example, The Roots of Heaven makes considerable and effective use of exotic instruments such as the marimba and maracas. David Copperfield has one of the most beautiful themes ever written for the cinema. Arnold is able to compose music that matches all moods and emotions from the most violent to the deepest tragedy by way of romance, comedy, wit and the overcoming of insuperable odds.

I do not need to rehearse the plot of either film save to say that The Roots of Heaven is about one man’s crusade to save the African elephant from destruction and that David Copperfield is the story of a boy who succeeds in his struggle against considerable adversities after being sent way by his stepfather to London following his mother’s death.

For the record, David Copperfield was Arnold’s last film score and was completed in 1969. The Roots of Heaven was composed in 1958.

This disc, in its Marco Polo incarnation was extensively reviewed on MusicWeb International by Ian Lace, Gary Dalkin and Adrian Smith .

In spite of my reservations about a correct or satisfying listening strategy for these scores, I did enjoy this disc. The sound quality has been criticised by reviewers in the past, however I found the playing perfectly satisfying. The liner-notes are seriously impressive. There is a short ‘foreword’ by the composer written in 2001. John Cox has provided a near-dissertation length analysis of both film-scores preceded by an introduction to Malcolm Arnold as film composer in general. John Morgan, who realised the score of David Copperfield, has contributed some ‘arranger notes’. This whole package is a model of how analytical notes could and should be written for film and ballet music which is divorced from its original context.

I guess that I would rather have ‘suites’ of music made up from these two film scores. This has been admirably done by Chandos with composers such as William Alwyn, Miklos Rozsa, Clifton Parker as well as Arnold himself. Perhaps some of the documentary films could be used to create a ‘tone poem’ – for example the British Transport Film on the Channel Islands. Yet the other side to this coin, is, that by using only ‘the best bits’ of Arnold’s scores, there is so much attractive and atmospheric music that would be lost to the listener. It is a circle that cannot easily be squared.

John France



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