I approached Tony Bremner's recording of The Big Country with no small degree
of trepidation. Jerome Moross' main title alone is a signature piece among
Western film scores, frequently performed in film music concerts -- and usually
very badly: the string opening isn't furious enough and the brass fanfares
that follow are usually too timid. By the time Moross' glorious, flowing
Big County theme arrives, the effect is already vitiated for anyone familiar
with the original.
And the potential hurdles don't end there for any conductor attempting to
recreate the entire score. Beneath its harmonic simplicity, the score is
driven by intricate and demanding tempos and rhythms. Cues such as 'The
Welcoming," 'The Raid & Capture,' and - most notably -- 'The War Party
Gathers' require careful attention on the conductor's part to recreate the
experience Moross brought to the screen back in 1958 for director William
Wyler's expansive study of courage and violence, focusing on a water war
between two ranches amid the wide open Western vista.
Thus it's not without some relief that I find Bremner's effort quite laudable.
This 1995 CD re-release (from a 1988 recording) features London's Philharmonia
Orchestra performing 26 of the original soundtrack recording's 42 cues, several
of which are combined on the same tracks. In addition to the above-mentioned
cues, I particularly enjoyed the four successive dance tunes that Moross
composed as source music for the engagement party. 'McKay in Blanco Canyon'--
in which the music's powerful effect derives from its silent bars -- also
merits particular mention. "You almost expect an echo to bounce back from
the white walls of the canyon," Bremner says in his highly informative liner
notes which, in addition to noting cues that were dropped ALSO notes certain
passages that are nearly inaudible in the final film due to other sound effects.
There are caveats when comparing this to the original soundtrack -- while
Bremner's conducting is appropriately brisk, it sometimes lags slightly --
'The Welcoming,' for example, takes an added 10 seconds here over Moross'
version. And I wish they had included the short 'Night in Blanco Canyon'
cue. Nevertheless, this is a sterling effort.
But there remains one more issue, and (wouldn't you know it?) it involves
that main title music -- those brass fanfares just aren't up to the original.
A failing on Bremner's part? No. Interestingly, the score as originally recorded
by Moross is not what the composer initially intended! In a note to musicologist
Christopher Palmer (this album's producer) Moross confirmed that he had wanted
the fanfares to be even quicker -- a Scotch snap -- which may have been too
fast for Moross' trumpeters. Although it upsets my own concept of what should
be, Bremner is faithful here to Moross' original intent.