Victor YOUNG (1900-1956) The Greatest Show on Earth - Prelude (March) (1952) [2:16] The Uninvited - Suite (1944) [24:10] Gulliver's Travels - Suite (1939) [16:38] Bright Leaf - Suite (1950) [26:20]
Moscow Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/William Stromberg
rec. Mosfilm Studio, Moscow, Russia, April 1997 NAXOS FILM MUSIC CLASSICS 8.573368 [69:31]
Another disc in the re-release of the Marco Polo 'Film Music Classics' series on Naxos. What was evident in the original releases and has carried forward triumphantly here is the sheer skill, dedication and devotion of the principal protagonists: William Stromberg and John Morgan. In the Moscow Symphony Orchestra they found enthusiastic and committed support.
Not being of an age to have encountered these films in the cinema, my main introduction to the sheer brilliance of the music written for the Golden Age of Hollywood was via RCA's remarkable series "The Classic Film Scores" conducted by Charles Gerhardt with the National Philharmonic Orchestra. Some 43 years after the initial release these recordings still sound sensational. Unfortunately, I am nearly certain about this, no music by Victor Young was included with the exception of the Main Title to The Left Hand of God on the "Classic Film Scores of Humphrey Bogart" disc. So guided by that series I have rather overlooked Young except as the writer of such standards as When I fall in Love and My Foolish Heart. Even Christopher Palmer in his excellent - but quite short - "The Composer in Hollywood" [Marion Boyars Publishers - 1990] apologises for the omission of Victor Young except in passing reference to others' work. Hence this is my first extended encounter with his work, and impressive it is too. Morgan and Stromberg have skilfully chosen a programme that shows the range of Young's work from the razzamatazz of the march from The Greatest Show on Earth to the high melodrama of Bright Leaf. Interesting to read in the liner that there was an intention to include a disc of Young's work from the outset. In part one imagines this was to make good the absence of such a recording in previous surveys. Another Marco Polo/Naxos/Stromberg compilation disc - this time recorded in Germany with the Brandenburg Philharmonic - featured Young's score for Scaramouche - a disc I have and will now seek out again.
The scores selected cover the absolute heyday of Hollywood's Golden Age from the 1930s through to the 1950s. The disc opens with the aforementioned Greatest Show on Earth - pure parade ring bombast. It manages to be completely original while sounding like a conflation of every Sousa marching-band extravaganza you know. As with the whole disc it is played to the hilt and sounds thoroughly idiomatic courtesy of the Moscow Symphony. Thankfully short but a hugely entertaining curtain-raiser. The rest of the disc contains extended suites/excerpts from three very different films. The 1944 The Uninvited is a darkly atmospheric ghost story. Yet even here, Young is true to his popular song roots and from the open title [track 2 - Prelude] fashioned a tune to become very well-known as Stella by Starlight. In the original it is given the full Hollywood treatment from lush strings, heroic brass and even the obligatory concertante piano. Seconds into this track you will know if you love or hate this - I love it. Throughout the aptness of Young's cues are very apparent. The English-only liner is excellent at guiding the listener through the narrative. Another example of the creative team's dedication is in the restoration and re-scoring of cues either shortened or omitted for the film's release. An example of this is the cue The sobbing ghost [track 5] restored by Morgan and brilliantly atmospheric - shivering string tremolandi and harp arpeggios over swirling wind and ominous brass. There might not be much thematic content but it is laden with 'mood'. Another feature of these suites is how well they are constructed to flow together and mirror the narrative. So by the time the solution to the mystery of the ghostly occurrences is reached there is a satisfying sense of musical resolution too.
The 1939 cartoon Gulliver's Travels was released as a direct response to the success of Disney's Snow White. In this film Young acted not just as composer but also arranger of some five or so other composers' songs which were interpolated into the score. Young references these songs in the Prelude as well as setting up a distinctly 'cartoonish' atmosphere with scuttling xylophone and busy strings leading to angelic chorus and ever more lush orchestral textures. As is the nature of cartoon writing there is a rather disconcerting rapid 'cutting' from comedy to drama to storm and back. All of which is a technical tour de force but away from the images this gives the music a rather schizophrenic character. The other cues selected for this suite are more self-contained and appear to be all-Young. This was one of Young's earliest scores and in it, by the sheer facility and range of his invention as well as proving the vital ability to produce cues in quantity and on time, he quickly established himself as exactly the kind of staff composer the studios required. The longest single cue in this suite; Gabby and the King-The Tower-The Archers [track 13] embodies all these virtues and occasionally echoes in a light-hearted way Korngold's great score for Robin Hood. It is also an excellent example of the sustained virtuosity of the Moscow players.
The disc is completed by the longest suite from the 1950 film Bright Leaf - a film I have never seen and possibly never will. The liner describes this as a tepid drama about a tobacco dynasty and goes further; "... this bleak draggy drama, complete with utterly downbeat ending, was sunk further by miscasting." Given that less than promising description the discovery of Young's powerful and impressive score is all the more surprising and thank goodness for its resurrection here. The film's setting is the American South which gives Young plenty of opportunities for Gone with the Wind like drama and sweeping melody. The bustling energy of the two montage cues [tracks 17 and 19] are perfect examples of the sheer energy and vigour of Young's scoring and its performance here. If one is being ultra-critical of Young the film composer it is that he so submerges himself in the genre that it is hard to hear who the 'real' Victor Young is. I imagine it is this lack of individuality that so annoyed the likes of Bernard Herrmann about his fellow film composers. Likewise, the acknowledged greats of cinema such as Korngold, Steiner, Waxman, Rózsa and Tiomkin managed to combine their responsibility to the narrative with a sound that remained distinctly their own. Bright Leaf remains a very impressive and compelling score - listen to the skilfully paced build-up through Suicide cue [track 20] that in turn leads to the closing sequence Southern Vengeance - The Fire - Finale. If you have an iota of empathy for the film music genre this will impress - it presses all the expected buttons of ever-building tension, disaster and an 'off-into-the-sunset' ending but so what. This is all helped by excellent engineering and superb playing.
Alongside the musical excellence of this series, the retention of the original detailed notes including a note from the arranger is valuable and adds greatly to the enjoyment of the disc. The Moscow Symphony Orchestra are uniformly on excellent form - their chorus struggle with idiomatic singing in English - but not as badly as they do for the release of Korngold's Sea Hawk set but that is a very minor concern. The engineering is ideally detailed but also rich and full with an excitingly cinematic dynamic range and depth. Aficionados of classic film scores will in all probability already own this disc from its original release. If like me, it somehow slipped through the net then it will bring great pleasure. Something of a revelation and a very welcome return to the catalogue.