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Franz WAXMAN Taras Bulba OST- music conducted by the composer RYKO RCD 10736 [44:10]    


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Taras Bulba is one of Franz Waxman's most popular scores and, indeed, "The Ride to Dubno" has long been a concert favourite. I remember that it made a fitting climax to Charles Gerhardt's outstanding RCA Classic Film Scores tribute to the composer (RCA GD 80708); the performance by the National Philharmonic Orchestra was truly hair-raising and it had the benefit of superb analogue sound engineered by the late Ken Wilkinson. So it is good to have the complete score at last on CD - and conducted by the composer! There is much to admire. In fact Bernard Herrmann thought of it as "the score of a lifetime." Christopher Palmer, writing in his book The Composer in Hollywood, (an obligatory read for all fans of film music), said it was : "...a young man's music in its exuberance, dashing colours and whiplash energy...It was one of Waxman's last (he died in 1967) and best scores." Palmer also observed that "The Ride to Dubno" - " mightily impressive - Ravel might have likened it to his Bolero, "orchestral tissue without is a virtuoso showpiece."

Taras Bulba (1962), directed by J. Lee Thomson, fresh from his The Guns of Navarone success, starred Yul Brynner in the title role with Tony Curtis as his son, Andrei, seduced away from duty by the charms of the lovely Christine Kaufmann as Natalia, the daughter of a Polish aristocrat, and enemy and usurper of the Cossacks under Taras Bulba.

"Here was a subject that demanded the flavor of the proud and unconquerable spirit of Ukrainian Cossacks of the 16th Century combined with the harmonic and rhythmical palette of contemporary music", Franz Waxman had said of this score. As luck would have it Waxman had been in the Soviet Union conducting major orchestras just before writing this score and when the tour took him to Kiev, one of the oldest cities, in the heart of the Ukraine, he was able to take the opportunity to study the folk music of the area.

The basic patterns of "The Ride to Dubno" are expanded and developed in "The Battle of Dubno and Finale," a long cue of nearly twelve minutes duration, to provide music of considerable excitement and tension (one section at 3:15 uses, to great and unusual effect, swiftly moving flutes and piccolos in their highest register arcing over an increasingly tense low string ostinato). At the end of the battle, the tension drains away and is replaced by slow mournful figures for the death of Andrei, who had fought on the side of the Poles and was killed, in battle, by his father. In an affecting episode, at about 9:15, violins comment consolingly as cellos sadly intone the romantic music associated with the love of Andrei and Natalia had flowered fully in the cue "No Retreat." It is one of Waxman's most beguiling tunes and it is heard as a vocal in the track "The Wishing Star."

Another major theme is presented as an attractive and simple tender lullaby for "The Birth of Andrei." "Sleighride" offers a glittering scherzo-like treatment of the love theme, romance a-cantering through icy landscape (even with twittering bird comment). This is a delicious miniature. The harsh opening cadences of "Chase at Night" remind one of the music of Holst before more relaxed, witty, music associated with student pranks. "The Black Plague" is a dark, swirling, fugal construction suggesting increasing confusion and panic; it develops into a grotesque almost nauseous funeral march with slithering strings and woodwinds over a persistent hollow snare drum ostinato.

Altogether a very impressive score and one of the best issues from Ryko to date

Ian Lace

- and Rob Barnett adds -

The most complete recording of Franz Waxman's score for Taras Bulba is available on the Rykodisc CD for the first time. Waxman died in 1967 five years after completing this score and it is amongst his last. It shows no sign of weariness. In fact it brims with vitality, imagination and occasionally a touching poetry. The film was directed by J Lee Thomson and was planned as a spectacular follow-up to the commercially extremely successful Guns of Navarone (1961). The film was shot in the Argentinean Matto Grosso and the sense of open space comes over very strongly unfailingly echoing the Russian steppe. The score was initially to have been commissioned from Bronislau Kaper but Kaper had to decline because of his immersion in the score for Mutiny on the Bounty. Kaper recommended Waxman. The score became Waxman's 12th Oscar nomination.

The notes make it clear that this is not the original soundtrack. For this we can be thankful because that was recorded with a reduced orchestra. What we have here, if I read the implication of the notes correctly, is a full orchestral recording produced as part of the promotion of the film and issued on LP. There are eleven music tracks. The 8th track is "The Wishing Star" a gooey vocal version of the theme which is better passed over. The American accent is so at odds with the subject matter of the film. This is a pity as the film often appears and sounds quite authentic notwithstanding Tony Curtis's accent!

The overture is what you would expect - a vigorous precis of the score in its dynamism and poetry. The second track is a gentle lullaby for the birth of Andrei. There are no cross-references to Janacek's Taras Bulba; I wonder if Waxman knew the piece. The third track is a sleighride which has much snowy glitter and skittering strings and high woodwind counterpointing a theme a couple of removes from Lara's Theme from Dr Zhivago. A Chase at Night depicts hunt for Taras's sons in the Polish capital. Here the strongest influence is apparent; that of Dmitri Shostakovich. Bear in mind that the score dates from 1962 and that, by coincidence, in the year of its commission Waxman had been invited by the Soviet Government to conduct the major symphony orchestras of six cities of the then USSR. The biting satirical edge, razor-honed, dominates the more dynamic episodes of which this is the first. This could easily be from the same pen as the composer of the angry fast movements of Shostakovich 10-12. In fact The Ride to Dubno has an uncanny resemblance to the scherzo from Shostakovich Symphony No 11. This is commented on by Christopher Palmer in his notes to the RCA/BMG Gerhardt recording of selections from the Waxman films. Track 5 is a return to the gently rocking lullaby of track 2. The next track is also sleepy or more accurately contented and self-mesmerised. It follows in the great tradition of Russian symphonic music from Borodin to Tchaikovsky, Glazunov to Rachmaninov.

Then (track 7) comes the famous Ride to Dubno (aka The Ride of the Cossacks). This is a turbulent orchestral scherzo display-piece. According to John Waxman it has been played as a free standing concert piece in halls from Boston to Berlin; Brisbane to Osaka. It is one of Waxman's most striking inspirations. I saw the film recently on television and while it must lose a lot from sacrificing the wide-screen there is no denying the cumulative power of this music read with the gathering of the Cossack hosts as they stream together in little groups and then coalesce into a massive sabre wielding horseback horde sweeping across the Steppe. The music is a sort of brash Bolero or like the (in)famous counterpart movement in Shostakovich Symphony No 7. The barking French horns reminded me of Bernard Herrmann. In the film there is a rather crude edit in the music which is largely hidden by the drumming of the hooves but it is good to hear the piece played as it is fully extended and with a big orchestra.

Track 8 goes back to that lullaby theme with a touch of Korngold and gallons of schmaltz when the voices arrive accompanied interestingly by a harpsichord - yet another eager little touch.

The Black Plague ghoulishly accompanies visions of the pestilence which sweeps the Polish city besieged by Taras (Yul Brynner). Taras's Pledge is music played tactfully in the background to Taras's tragic-heroic speech. The theme is an authentic Ukrainian folk-song. The longest track is the Battle of Dubno and Finale. This opens with reminiscences of the Dubno Ride and Khachaturyan's Violin Concerto as well as the Sabre Dance (great favourites in the USA from the mid-1940s onwards). The horns are exhilaratingly and acidically brash. Dies Irae puts in an appearance at 3:10. At 06:00 you can hear a member of the orchestra leaning back in their chair. This dissolves into the romantic lullaby theme which gradually darkens into hesitation and tragedy. Briefly the music recalls the more triumphant moments ending in the usual Hollywood sunburst.

The notes (by Jeff Bond, the composer and John Waxman - the composer's son) are first class, and are on the usual single large sheet of glossy art paper folded five times. The composer's notes include music examples. The illustrations include both colour and monochrome photo stills from the film and from location filming in Argentina. The promotional note indicates that the disc has additional music beyond that included on the original LP. I cannot comment on this as I have not heard the LP.

This is an enhanced CD with a film clip playable in full motion video on a suitably kitted out Quick-Time installed PC.

The sound quality is not sumptuous but has plenty of mordant impact without being objectionably shrill. It seems to be in true stereo although I cannot guarantee that. The recording is quite close-up as you would expect from a 1962 LP and there is the inevitable barely discernible hiss of a vintage analogue recording.


Rob Barnett

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