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Charles CHAPLIN (1889-1977)
Modern Times (1936) [79:47]
NDR Radio Philharmonic/Timothy Brock
rec. 13-20 November 2006, and 9 October 2007, Grosser Sendesaal, NDR Hannover, Germany
CPO 777 286-2 [79:47]

Probably everyone remembers the first time they saw a Charlie Chaplin movie. Whether it was a Little Tramp short film, watched as a young child, or a discovery later in life, the magic of Chaplin stays in the memory for a long time. My first Chaplin was Modern Times, at the age of 24. As an adult, the jokes are still funny, the Tramp’s antics are still brilliantly performed and the romance is still heart-tugging.

What really shocked me, and maybe what made me a Chaplin lover for life, was the music. Modern Times was halfway over before I realized that its writer, director and star was also its composer, and then admiration teetered into awe. This brand-new recording of the Modern Times original score confirms it: the Tramp was an extremely fine composer.

At times, the 80-minute soundtrack sounds like incidental music for ballet, which it is. A silent film, relying on the physicality of its lead performer, is basically a dance movie in disguise. Think about the scene where Chaplin, on roller skates, glides ever closer to a terrifying fall. The sound effects of the factory might not belong on stage but otherwise this is awfully close to a ballet score. My colleague Rob Maynard is right to point out, in his review, that there are a number of moments in the score which make little to no sense without an accompanying picture, the factory whistles among them.

Generally, the music is terrific. Chaplin was a master of great tunes. The love theme in this soundtrack later became “Smile”, a Nat King Cole standard which Michael Jackson said was his favourite song. At 6:30 on track 2, a dance breaks out that would make Franz Lehár itch with envy. Track 4 has a surprise episode that whisks you through a tango club in Argentina en route to Parisian café music.

The orchestration is also remarkable. Here Chaplin had help from actual professionals Edward Powell, Alfred Newman and David Raksin, but he didn’t need too much. According to the booklet, many or most of the voicing ideas were Chaplin’s own, and the director’s constant perfectionism extended to every detail of the music. The recording session lasted an entire month, and throughout it, Chaplin scribbled directions like “no oboe” or “add melody for cello here.” So we can give Chaplin partial credit for the skilled use of saxophones and contrabassoon, the way melodies get bounced from one instrument to another, the orchestral piano and an abundance of contrapuntal bonus melodies.

It’s fun to play “spot the influences.” I hear echoes of Debussy, Ravel, Barber, Offenbach, Chabrier and Tchaikovsky. Near the beginning, I thought I caught a whiff of Stravinsky. This was confirmed on track 7, which ends with a very long parody of Petrushka. The parody is flawlessly executed by Chaplin, and for anybody who knows their Stravinsky, it will be a delight.

There is certainly evidence of an amateur composer. We get an awful lot of repetition, including some simple melodies built on repeated notes, and there are moments where the score has to double back on itself in order to ensure that the music is long enough to last through a scene. On the other hand, Chaplin proves skilled at bringing the themes from the overture back, now and then, in the scenes that follow. There are many moments that, now recorded afresh in digital sound, provide an unexpected delight with their thoughtfulness. My favourite: the lovely cello reply to the main theme in track 6, after 2:30.

Timothy Brock has restored this score through, frankly, sheer heroism. He worked for over a year with all the available historical evidence, trying to piece together Chaplin’s final version out of comments left by conductor Newman, individual musicians in the orchestra, and all the various original sheet music and parts. He estimates that he worked at a pace of 20 seconds of restored music per day.

The result is a performing edition now used at live screenings of Modern Times around the world. The result, also, is this marvellous, joyous CD, which proudly re-announces what a skilled composer Charles Chaplin was. You should probably watch the film first, as Rob Maynard says, but if you have, this is one of the greatest joys of the year, a CD of classic light music from a totally unexpected source. If you listen to this album and gripe about what a clumsy composer Chaplin was, you’re uncharitable. If you listen and fail to have fun, you’re a Grinch. If you can watch the final scene of Modern Times without your eyes getting a little misty, then I don’t want to be your friend.

Brian Reinhart

Previous review: Rob Maynard


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