September 2000 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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Christopher GORDON
On The Beach  
  Original Televison Soundtrack
  VARÈSE SARABANDE VSD-6153   [73:49]

  Amazon UK  Amazon USA

Welcome to that which makes it all worth while. This monumental album, divided into six sections, is Christopher Gordon's score to the Hallmark mini-series version of Neville Shute's classic science fiction novel of nuclear war and the appalling aftermath. Previously filmed in 1959 in a truly exceptional feature film version starring Gregory Peck (music from which is on Ernest Gold: Film Themes and Suites, which I also review this month), Hallmark continue their policy of seeking out fine composers to give their TV productions decidedly superior scores. Gordon is previously only really known for his music for Hallmark's Moby Dick (1998), so I am still fairly stunned to say that while I can not vouch for how effective this music is as television music, as a stand-alone soundtrack album it is simply amazing. It is quite the best new soundtrack album I have so far heard this year, massively outstripping the latest from such giants of the film music world as Williams, Horner, Morricone, et al.

First the facts, then I'll tell you why it's so great, then you go and buy it. Please. Trust me on this one. There are 27 tracks in almost 74 minutes. A few are very short, the shortest, "Homecoming" and "At the Taj Mahal" running only 47 seconds each. However, there are also big, set-piece cues with much more extensive running times. Despite the large number of tracks this is an exceptionally well structured album which flows very nicely and never feels fragmented, because even the shortest cues function as self-contained pieces of music. This is a score for large (un-named, presumably 'pick-up') orchestra and on a few tracks, choir. The Sydney Philharmonia Choir, from which one might make an educated guess as to where many of the musicians come from.

Now while the orchestra is un-credited, unusually there are seven soloists acknowledged by name. And here is the first key to the success of the score. The music is not just conducted by the composer, but orchestrated by Mr Gordon too. No team of orchestrators here, racing against a release date and ensuring a bland uniformity of sound. This has made a huge difference, for this is a thoroughly composed work. As in the best scores of Ennio Morricone (not coincidentally famed for always orchestrating his own music) the instrumental detail is integral to the impact of the music. Christopher Gordon writes for his soloists, and what fine soloists they are. He ranges from full orchestral passages to the most intimate sequences. There is big war/militaristic music which succeeds in being noble, rousing and harrowing, all without ever resorting to the sort of clichés which lesser composers fall prey to. There are coruscating choral passages for the end of the world as we know it, and there is music which ranges from the impressionistically romantic to the utterly desolate, scored for alternately violincello, viola, horn, trumpet, harp, piano and child soprano. At the emotional heart of the score is the profoundly emotional violincello playing of David Periera, 'Elegy' evoking the spirit of Elgar to enormous effect. Elsewhere the score ranges from the English folk-inspired 'Moira and Towers Meet', which strangely seems to summon images of Rachel Portman's Emma, to the neo-West Side Story Bernstein orchestral jazz of 'The Great Ocean Road' through the Hovhanessesque swirling arpeggios of the climax to the muscular set-piece 'Anchorage'. 'Flight Through the Apostles' is utterly exhilarating, one last moment of joy and glory before the shattering final tracks which take the music truly into the heart of darkness.

By modern standards this is an enormously diverse and complex score. It is beautifully crafted in every detail and gorgeously romantic in the best possible sense. It has the epic melodies so beloved of fans of Williams and Goldsmith, the corrosive, implacable power of Herrmann, and a personality, despite my noting possible influences, all its own. My only criticism is that when the solo parts come in there is sometimes a marked rise in background noise in a way which just should not happen today. Still, it barely detracts from what is a magnificent achievement. Though living in Australia, Christopher Gordon is an English composer, and it is clear he is following in the very best British film music tradition, that of Vaughan-Williams, William Alwyn, John Scott, Christopher Gunning. This is real film music. This is real music. Quite simply, a score to take its place not just as the best of this year so far (and I can't imagine anything bettering it out of what is still to come), but as one of the all time film music greats. An absolutely essential purchase.

Gary S. Dalkin


FilmScore Monthly reports rave reviews but a total sale of under 150copies


Gary S. Dalkin


Reviews from previous months

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