Music Webmaster Len Mullenger


October 1998

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Alfred NEWMAN The Greatest Story Ever Told OST  RYKO RCD 3CDs 10734  


Crochet (UK)
Soundstone (USA)

George Stevens's The Greatest Story Ever Told was released by United Artists in 1965. Halliwell, in giving it two stars, commented: "Solemn spectacular with an elephantine pace...all frightfully elegant and reverent but totally unmoving...partly because of the fatal casting of stars in bit parts (imagine the incongruous casting of Gung-Ho hawk John Wayne as a centurion intoning "Truly, this was the son of God!").

I would hesitate to suggest that these sentiments might be applied to this album with material that sprawls across three CDs but there is an unfortunate sameness about much of this music. Lest I am scourged for uttering such blasphemy against what, for many, is a well-loved score, I hasten to add that there is often beauty in its pages - for instance, in the cue a "A new commandment" on CD1. The music is pious and reverential enough. It is passionate (sometimes drenched in emotion) consolatory and compassionate. It is, for the most part, based on simple hymn-like figures with prominent writing for strings and woodwinds in pastoral mode (that is in the ecclesiastical sense). Brass and percussion are reserved for when the music rises in majestic awe of the Lord, or when opposing evil lurks.

The music written by an ailing Alfred Newman, late in his career, was orchestrated by colleague Ken Darby. It follows closely on the pattern established for Newman's earlier score for The Robe (in fact he had established an eminent reputation in the genre of the religious film with experience gained on The Keys of the Kingdom, Song of Bernadette, David and Bathsheba, A Man Called Peter and The Egyptian etc.) The first CD of the set is the original sound track recording originally issued at the time of the film's release on LP - this is its first appearance on CD. The other two CDs present the original film recording drawn from personal copies of the recording in Ken Darby's possession. This material has never been released before - in any format.

I have to repeat that there is too little variety in the music. It works well enough with the images and action on-screen but it makes for a poor listening experience in its own right - the ears get tired of the terribly reverential material which sounds practically the same in track after the track and Newman's use of Liszt's assertive theme from Les Preludes jars on this listener's ears. Listening to the lush, sweet string writing, I am reminded of what Steven C. Smith says in his biography of Bernard Herrmann, A Heart at Fire's Centre, "While a conductor like Alfred Newman loved high intensity string playing with a lot of vibrato, Herrmann was just the opposite: he wanted a cool sound with almost no vibrato. He'd abuse the orchestra for half the morning: "Get that hysterical sound outta the strings." (However it should be said that Bernard Herrmann had great affection and respect for Alfred Newman; they collaborated on the music for The Egyptian.) The choral numbers vary from the mundane (routine renditions of excerpts from Handel's Messiah and Verdi's Requiem) to the cor blimey with modern chorus writing, in a sort of modern plainsong mode, for a cue called "There Shall Come A Time to Enter" in which the choir enunciate "For His mercy endoooreth for everrr.." This enterprise might have been more successful had there been less music more carefully selected. The customary fold-out booklet/poster is included and the first CD has a ROM content with scenes from the epic.

Ian Lace

Footnote: As I anticipated, my review of The Greatest Story Ever Told has stirred up a hornet's nest of controversy. I am indebted to one correspondent who has pointed out that "Ken Darby did not orchestrate this score..." and that - "much of the music on discs 2 and 3, which are the real soundtrack recordings, were jettisoned from the film by George Stevens, were never heard in the film and are being heard here for the first time." However, I feel I cannot relent my main criticism that there is too much of a sameness about the tracks on this 3CD set.

Ian Lace

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