|August 2000 Film Music CD Reviews||Film Music Editor: Ian
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DECCA 467 270-2 [40:25]
Crotchet Amazon US
The X-Men continues the summer blockbusters with what looks like another surprisingly good film, coming as it does from Bryan Singer, director of The Usual Suspects and the tremendously under-rated Apt Pupil. It is a film which has taken all the pundits by surprise, being supposedly too dark for more than cult success, yet opening in America with a staggering $57m over it's first three days. Michael Kamen's musical score is certainly dark, showing very little sign of commercial friendliness. It sounds like pure film music, in that it may brilliantly enhance the dark drama on-screen, but makes for a tough listen.
The album opens with 'Death Camp', a sober piano arpeggio recalling John Ottman's score for The Usual Suspects, before giving way to intense string textures which call to mind Barber's Adagio for Strings. However, the track quickly builds to a corrosively powerful orchestral peak in a territory someplace between Jerry Goldsmith's The Boys From Brazil and John Williams The Fury, the former of course dealing with fascism and genetic experimentation, the latter with super-powered mutants. Both applicable references for this adaptation of Marvel's long-running comic-book saga. The tracks which follow - there are 12 in total - mix savagely ironclad action, occasionally augmented with brutal technoesque electronics, and minimal, stark atmospheres. Wordless sampled female voices are used in a restrained fashion, while a track such as 'Mutant School' offers a fatalistic enchanted glitter akin to Ottman's fine Incognito score. As matters progress, through touches of neo-classical string writing in 'Magneto's Lair' to the tortured violin writing and apparent serial techniques of 'Museum Fight' (thing of Goldsmith's Coma) perseverance is rewarded. This is a score which goes 'bang' and 'crash', but it does so in a controlled, precise way which is dramatically powerful. You will search in vein for a memorable tune, it is the perfect album for clearing the house of guests who have overstayed their welcome, though the finale, 'Logan and Rogue' does offer some shadow-inflected romance.
An album which many will find hard to love, and which many will dismiss out of hand as unlistenable, for those able to appreciate classy thriller / horror scores there are pleasures here. It does not appear on the evidence of the album to be a great score, or even an outstanding one, but it has every chance of being most effective in the film, and that when all is said and done is the primary purpose of movie music.
Gary S. Dalkin
Marc Bridle adds:-
Michael Kamen has written some notable scores - among them the action movie soundtracks for Die Hard and Die Hard 2 (the most memorable music not being Kamen's action-bound rollercoaster at all, but Sibelius' Finlandia), and the romantic drama, Mr Holland's Opus, for which Kamen wrote the Richard Dreyfuss composer's oh-so-American symphony. X-MEN does not necessarily depart from the substance of these previous big hitters, but it sounds to me amongst his most derivative film scores.
The music opens wonderfully for the Death Camp scene - Hitchcockian piano threads lead to a memorable theme on lower strings which is as dark as anything Shostakovich wrote. From 2'07 to 2'28 the music is genuinely catastrophic, unsparing in the picture it draws of unrelieved horror. As it moves on, however, through the Ambush (with its eery harmonics) the sense of invention falls off and the music sounds as if it has sprung from the pages of Independence Day (2'49 to 3'22 - track 2). The haunting opening to the Magneto's Lair (on what sounds like violin strings being played beyond the instrument's bridge) leads onto another of those dark-rimmed passages on cellos and basses. Train (track 6) begins on a fugato which gathers momentum and develops into a schizoid, Psycho-like melody on strings but doesn't go any further.
The Museum Fight (track 9) finds Kamen somewhere near his best. Lower strings are carefully used as a dynamic contrast to the high tessitura writing for the violins and there is an added dissonance to his writing here which belies a considerable debt to Stravinsky. The Final Showdown is again derivative of the conclusion to Independence Day - which is a bit of a pity. The final track takes us full circle by ending on the same solo piano which opens the film.
There were times when Kamen almost came close in this score to equalling his achievement in his unsurpassed music to Stephen King's The Dead Zone (a much under-rated film). In the end, it is only partly a triumph, and he does not always succeed in mixing classical and rock idioms. They often seem juxtaposed very uncomfortably. One feels he used all of his creative energy for the extraordinary opening track. Elsewhere, the inspiration is very under-developed.
VARÈSE SARABANDE VSD-6154 [57:30]
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Having enjoyed Randy Edelmans score for Six Days, Seven Nights last year, I looked forward to this score eagerly. It blends, with considerable success, traditional western and oriental styles. Ralph Ferraros orchestrations help considerably, the British contract orchestra (the album was recorded at Abbey Road studios) is excellent and the mix with the traditional arts ensemble and rhythm section recorded separately elsewhere in London is seamless.
Edelman has a great sense of humour and his work is well suited to comedy. He uses a whole array of colourful instruments like didgeridoos, Jews harps, saloon pianos, and harmonicas, to great atmospheric and comic effect. He unashamedly parodies Morosss The Big Country score over a number of tracks including From East to West and Becoming a Cowboy in Carson City. Almost everywhere you get an oriental (over)viewpoint of the traditional western dramatic situation, confrontation with Indians, bar-room brawls etc. There are many enjoyable tracks including Bonding in Jail a breezy country piece for guitars spread across the sound stage before a note of sentimentality on the clarinet; the menacing bass drum in the wickedly lampooning A Classic Gunfight offset by oriental sneers (a nice comic orchestral touch), and another lovely parody, Home on the Rangoon"! Grandeur, romance and drama are all there in good measure too.
An amusing album, well up to the Edelman tradition.
VARÈSE SARABANDE VSD-6152 [57:18]
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This is an adaptation of another horsy story from the author of The Black Stallion (Jeanne Rosenberg). Set in the early 1900s the films premise has the horse (Lucky!) comment on universal maltreatments via voiceover from Lukas Haas. An analogy is drawn between mans cruelty to animals and the outbreak of WWI.
This potent scenario, with lush cinematography has elicited a vibrantly charged score from Italian composer Piovani. If you fall in love with the uplifting theme introduced in the "Main Title", youll be pleased to know its the basis for much of the rest of the score. The long-line melody is broken into sections and undergoes intelligent development at every turn. One coda to the central theme sounds decidely Morricone-esque a compliment to a fellow Countryman. Without doubt its loveliest variation as a whole is on flute, with "Hoofbeats" earning itself the respect of this reviewer as one of the finest melodic compositions heard in a while.
After slight diversions blending the overall style into the feel of a cheeky brass band ("Mine Band") and an occasionally stiff Britannia-ruling upper lip, 2 sourced cues add something completely unexpected. "Dance of the Hunters Fire" and "The Hunt" both performed by Mickey Hart and Planet Drum are a sort of highly infectious Jungle drumming. Each feels at once integral to the surrounding score, yet stands alone by the surprising change of pace.
Vareses album is a perfectly rounded hour long. The only quibble being the atypically sparse packaging which has writing so small as to be ridiculous!
The Big Kahuna
VARÈSE SARABANDE VSD-6140 [33:32]
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The title track The Big Kahuna is a bouncy, jazzy, rhythmically attractive piece (harmonica and strings working well together), although the simplistic melody line does little to enhance it. And its these blues and jazz rhythmic elements that are the mainstay of the entire score. This would be all very well if the selections werent so hit and miss, but where the catchy bass-lines of Cheeseballs and Shrimp and Industrial Lubricants are enjoyable, unfortunately the more up tempo tracks like Measured by Dogs and the rock and roll of Happy Jesus and El Kahuna Grande are far less agreeable.
Luckily, to offset all of this swinging high jinx there are a number of more thoughtful pieces including Philed with Fuller and Salterello, which add some much needed depth to the score. But the real standout track is without question Gods in the Closet with its acoustic guitars backed by strings in a very affecting, rather beautifully melodic theme. This comes as a complete surprise and its really good enough to have built the entire score around.
Two original tunes also feature; a solid rendition of the Mancini/Mercer composition Charade (from the film of the same name) performed by Si Zentner and the lively Binga Banga Bongo played by Terry Snyder and the All Stars. Theres also the song Hey Pachucho! performed by Royal Crown Revue for those in the mood.
As Christopher Young is one of my favourite of what I will loosely call the younger composers (as in not Jerry Goldsmith or John Williams!), I expect a lot from him, but this new score is rather a mixed bag. The emphasis is mainly on a blend of swinging, lounge music and soft rock, so if thats your kind of thing then you probably wont be disappointed. But for myself I prefer this composer in full orchestral dramatic flow.
Certainly not the best of Mr. Young, but worth a listen if only for the charming Gods in the Closet.
************************************************************** EDITORs RECOMMENDATION August 2000
SILVA SCREEN FILMCD 337 [40:68]
This album is delightful. If you forget the rather lame bits of non-risible dialogue and concentrate on the music there is much to enjoy. John Debney convinces that he is very much at home in the field of easy listening/light music and pastiche. And before anybody infers that I use the word pastiche in any derogatory sense I hasten to assure them that the contrary is the case for Debney writes with much charm and wit. His sources range from baroque music (fittingly for the upper crust English family background) through the light music idioms of Robert Farnon and Leroy Anderson to the jazz/swing music of Billy May and Nelson Riddle and Henry Mancini etc. In fact the opening Almost Like Being in Love might have been recorded by Old Blue Eyes himself, listening to the voice of Sinatra-soundalike, Rick Riso with this May/Riddkle-like backing. Debney also writes some strikingly tuneful original music that is merry and bright or contemplative and romantic, eg. The Kiss, Rumba and Romanceand Goodbyes. If you liked John Williams music for Sabrina then you will love this CD. It will be visiting my CD player again and cheer me on long car drives.
Band of Angels; Death of a Scoundrel* (plus short excerpts from: Four Wives; Charge of the Light Brigade; The Searchers and A Stolen Life)
Warner Bros Orchestra; RKO Studio Orchestra* conducted by Max Steiner
Label X LXCD 3 MONO [68:43]
Although I could not agree with the writer of this albums booklet notes who asserts that Max Steiners score for Band of Angels (1957) was one of the composers most memorable scores, I do agree that it has been unjustly ignored. There is plenty of good material in it but insufficient to justify 38 minutes devoted to it, for tedium sets in after a time on some tracks notably The Slave Market at eight minutes duration.
The film Band of Angels starred Clark Gable and Yvonne de Carlo (the Catherine Zeta Jones of the 1950s). Ms de Carlo played a Kentucky Belle who, on the death of her father, not only discovers she is penniless but worse, that she has the wrong coloured blood coursing through her veins! As a result she is sold into slavery, bought by a New Orleans millionaire (Gable) and becomes his mistress. Warners spent a pile on the misguided production directed with a wooden spoon by Raoul Walsh hoping that it would become a second Gone With the Wind. In the event it turned out to be a burlesque of almost every pre-Civil War story ever filmed complete with rambling deep south mansions, spiritual intoning black slaves, exotic mulattos, powerful cotton barons from New Orleans and sadistic slave traders etc. The supporting cast included Torin Thatcher as a sea captain and Efrem Zimbalist Jnr as a Union officer.
Steiners Prelude is written in his grand, sweeping Late Romantic style. There is the big romantic tune and material suggestive of the rich comfortable living of the deep south aristocracy surrounded by submissive slaves with equally cosy I know my place material on banjo and sentimental cellos. But there are also dramatic undercurrents too epitomised by a wild, strongly rhythmic dance that menaces.
For Starwood there is more feminine music commencing with material that seems to suggest a heroine dressed in flowing crinolines and big hat carrying a parasol to shield her from the sun as she rides stately in her carriage. When the tempo changes you can visualise her exchanging it for an evening at the ball. In The Slave Market Steiner toughens this theme and gives it a swagger that one would associate with Gable. The rest of the track includes material that quite clearly alludes to the vicious slave trader and the sea captain and there is a distinct French flavour to the music appropriate to the films New Orleans location. Amantha is much darker full of menace; with swirling strings and biting brass and canting/galloping rhythms. The big romantic tune in Pointe du Loup is rudely interrupted by a call to arms by bugles and drums.
One of the strongest tracks is Burning if the Cotton Crops in which Steiners heavily accented rhythms and harmonies give an intensely dramatic and very realistic picture of the scene. Hamish Bond has tragic overtones and the concluding Reunion brings the big romantic tune to a full flowering.
Much more impressive is the other rarely heard Steiner score on this disc for the tough melodrama Death of a Scoundrel (RKO, 1956). Quoting from Octopus book, The RKO Story, " two hours worth of rakes progress, complete with betrayal, thievery, multiple seduction, suicide, murder and the added fillip of watching George Sanders cavort with his actual ex-wife (Zsa Zsa Gabor) and stab his real-life brother (Tom Conway) in the back." The film also starred Yvonne de Carlo. Sanders played the ruthless Clementi Sabourin, killed by one of the business associates he has trodden on, on his way up the ladder. The Opening Theme is one of the most darkly powerful that Max Steiner ever wrote. The music is convoluted and there are agonised cries from the horns as though they emanate from some wild beast. This music then softens into a typical bitter sweet romantic melody, followed by a little jazz-inflected music to indicate the New York setting, plus material featuring the cimbalom suggestive of Sabourins middle-European background (he had betrayed his brother to the secret police). Mother, mother pursues this middle-European association further with the cimbalom prominent in a string based mournful folk tune. Waltz is another cimbalom led folk tune. Stephanie (played by Nancy Gates) is a warm romantic melody for the young actress Sabourin promotes but cannot seduce.
Charles Gerhardt recorded the Forward the Light Brigade cue (from The Charge of the Light Brigade) in his tribute to Steiner in Now Voyager in RCAs Classic Film Score series. It was one of the highlights of that album and here conducted by the composer it sounds even better, crisper and thrilling even if it lacks Gerhardts stereo image. This is one of those occasions where you wish that they would repeat the stirring middle section rather than the more prosaic strict-tempo march that begins and ends the composition.
The Symphonie Moderne from Four Wives was also recorded by Gerhardt on the same album described in the preceding paragraph but this time I do prefer the added vibrancy of this Gershwinesque composition on the stereo recording
From The Searchers there is Indian Idyll a lovely work that has a Delian delicacy with its steady but gentle rhythmic ostinato for harp and little bells. The final excerpt is from the Bette Davis vehicle, A Stolen Life, the Petit Valse - witty and full of character.
Recommended to all Steiner enthusiasts
The Big Country
The Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Tony Bremner
SILVA SCREEN FILMCD 724 [54:57]. (Reissue: recording made in 1988 Remastered in HNCD and Surround Sound with a newly recorded Main Title performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic conducted by Nic Raine.)
Jerome Moross seems destined to be remembered for this score alone such was the huge impact it made at the time but, of course he wrote many other memorable scores, The Cardinal for instance and SILVA promise us an album soon that will redress this balance.
This recording was one of the first that SILVA SCREEN issued way back in the late 1980s. The recording then was a vast improvement on the original LP which sounded thin and as if it had been engineered in an echo chamber.
I well remember being blown out of my seat by the sheer impact of the epic sweeping Main Title when I saw this film on its release in 1958. This score has it all the thunderous charge and tension of The Raid and Capture and The War Party Gathers; the humour of Old Thunder and the romance of Courtin Time plus the dances from Major Terrills party.
A welcome return of a major classic western score; one that new students of film music should really get to know.
Richard COCCIANTE & Luc PLAMONDON
Notre Dame de Paris (Classical Version)
I Fiamminghi conducted by Rudolf Werthen
VARÈSE SARABANDE CST 8083.2 [40:21]
Coincidentally arriving at the same time as the new Marco Polo Georges Auric film music compilation, that includes the 1956 film score of Notre-Dame de Paris (reviewed on this site this month), here is the classical version of the hit musical that is the latest incarnation of Victor Hugos epic story of the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
I Fiamminghi, founded by its present artistic director, Rudolf Werthen, is a Flemish multi-sized ensemble varying according to the music they perform. According to the booklet blurb, "Werthen consciously distances himself from score interpretations based upon tradition. With an appropriate feeli9ng for style and emotional empathy, and his command of the original performance techniques, Rudolf Werthen adds a new and refreshing dimension to familiar scores."
Werthen begins his all-orchestral version with The age of cathedrals which in theory should be a sweeping majestic statement but the awe is muted with the accent more on the lyricism associated with one of the musicals number. More imposing and astringent is the dramatic The refugees that has biting and desperate string figures and pungent bass drums. The chords become increasingly whip-like and speak of cruelty and despair. The Bohemian song, with its shimmering harp figures and melancholy song for cellos and violas, develops ardently as a vibrant Spanish rhythm dance coloured by trumpets and castanets. Torn Apart, belying its title, is another upbeat bracing number, strongly accented, in the Spanish style. In contrast Belle is more relaxed and sentimental; it is romantic and lyrical. The Pagan Ave Maria is another misnomer; hardly wild it has a rather sentimental romantic tune weaving over an Ave Maria-like ostinato figuration. So far so good and I was tempted to award this album near top points and an Editors recommendation but the remaining numbers in this 11 cue album frankly disappoint. They are predominantly tediously gloomy and based on simple musical cells that have too much repetition without enough variety of harmony or orchestration.
Very good in parts, tedious in others
Collection: Ben-Hur The Essential Miklós Rózsa
SILVA SCREEN 2 CDs FILMXCD 334 [104:52]
Music from: Ben-Hur; Providence; Julius Caesar; El Cid; Sodom and Gomorrah; Spellbound; The Thief of Baghdad; King of Kings, All the Brothers Were Valiant; The Golden Voyage of Sinbad; Quo Vadis
With the exception of music from Julius Caesar, this is another re-assembly of previous Silva Screen releases but this time offered in Surround Sound and HDCD for extended dynamic range. I will therefore not offer repeated reviews of these performances except to say that most of them are good, some very good while others, like The Thief of Baghdad do not impress so much. (The Love of the Princess seems interminably slow). Paul Batemans new reading of the imposing Julius Caesar music underlines Shakespeares tragedy in the sombre yet majestic funeral march Caesar Now Be Still heard at the end of the film as Mark Anthony delivers the final eulogy for not only Brutus but Caesar and Cassius. I must also add a mention of one score that is little known but does not fail to haunt the listener the beautiful Valse Crespesculaire (Twilight Waltz) for piano and orchestra from Providence.
This double album serves as a valuable introduction to the music of Miklós Rózsa. I suggest that later, students move on to the series of albums of Rózsa
film music conducted by the composer himself. I refer to the recordings of the biblical epics, Ben-Hur and Quo Vadis on Decca and Cloud Nine (together with El Cid and King of Kings). And more especially to the series of recordings of his film music that he made for Polydor (alas only issued on LP and long since deleted although we keep hearing persistent rumours that they are about to be reissued).
One must not take the appellation "essential" in the title too seriously for whole genres of Rozsas film music are not included in this album. No film noire scores like Double Indemnity (unless one can admit Spellbound into this category), and no science fiction scores, for instance, like The Power (although Silva Screen assure me that they have the score and fully intend to record this late but superb score when they can).
Recommended as an introduction to Rózsa
PROMETHEUS PCR 506 [43:37]
Set in the 1920s, this fictionalised adventure in the life of writer Dashiell Hammett benefits from an evocative, strongly atmospheric score. And as you might imagine the music is very influenced by the twenties era itself, employing a kind of sultry blues feel that conjures up images of smoke-filled gin joints and dark back alleys.
The Main Titles is a piano led blues piece with lead clarinet that has an alluring quality, but more satisfying still is Hammetts Dream which develops the theme and adds a discordant, disturbing twist which is typically Barry and all the better for it.
Chinatown Incident limits the actual ethnic elements to some subtle percussion and instead creates a much fuller orchestral sound with strings predominant. Wild Pipa on the other hand fully embraces the Chinese influences in the story with authentic traditional playing, although I have to be frank and say its pretty hard to sit through.
The intense, strikingly rhythmic strings of The Opium Den/Escape From Fongs make a strong impression though, as does Barrys familiar brooding piano and strings in The Wrap Up/Finale (almost inevitably this has moments very reminiscent of his Bond movies).
There are a number of suspenseful variations on the main theme in tracks such as Waterfront Rendezvous and You Cant Forget Her/Dont be a Chump/Let Her Go!, the latter benefiting from a sense of underlying menace and concluding on a big and bold dramatic note. The End Credits features a much lower-key version that is not quite as rewarding.
A source music suite is also included with a mixture of musical styles from jazz to Dixie. These cues are used as purely background ambience, but are hardly memorable in their own right. But then they werent really supposed to be. To be honest, Im not particularly enthusiastic about this notion of supplying source music with a score, even if (as is the case here) it was actually written by the composer himself. But I expect completists would disagree.
There are certainly some fine moments to be savoured here, but really the main weakness is that there really isnt enough original music to sustain the soundtrack (if you discount the source material). Of course every Barry collector wont mind that too much. But for new fans of film music this may not seem quite as worthwhile.
************************************************************** EDITORs RECOMMENDATION August 2000
Battle of the Bulge
Music from the film Queensland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Werner Andreas Albert.
cpo 999 696-2 [78:43]
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The 1960's. A decade with ironclad behemoths stalked the silver screen. Real epics. Not like today's Super-35 pseudo-epics, but the real epics with overtures and intermissions and shot in Ultra-Panavision 70, offering a truly widescreen aspect ratio of 2.75-1. Battle of the Bulge (1965) was one such film. Overall its reputation hasn't stood the test of time as well as The Longest Day or The Great Escape, the two best-known war epics which immediately preceded it. But who knows? For decades the film has only been seen (or half-seen) on television, and it is simply not possible to judge the full merits of such superb spectaculars this way. What has undoubtedly stood the test of the intervening 35 years is the music score by Benjamin Frankel.
Frankel is not as well known a composer as he should be. However, a fine introduction to his life and music can be found in the Benjamin Frankel pages on Classical Music on the Web, starting at: http://www.musicweb.uk.net/frankel/. Suffice to say that Frankel made an early career as a jazz musician and arranger, before moving into film work in the 1930's. In total he scored over a hundred film, TV and theatre productions, including such cinema classics as The Man in the White Suit, The Importance of Being Ernest and The Night of the Iguana. From 1958 onwards Frankel concentrated on his concert music, writing eight symphonies among many other works, retiring from film composition following Battle of the Bulge. Little of his film music has ever been issued in album form, and now, following a complete symphony cycle on CPO which has seen Frankel acclaimed as one of the great composers of the post-war period, CPO have embarked on a series of CDs of Frankel soundtrack re-recordings. This current disc is actually the very first re-recording of any complete score by Benjamin Frankel. For this we have to thank in large measure Dimitri Kennaway, Frankel's stepson and an indefatigable champion of the composer's music. In various ways, not least in the actual preparation of the scores and sometimes in the reconstruction of missing parts, Mr Kennaway has been instrumental in bringing this music to us.
I interviewed Dimitri Kennaway recently, (to read the interview follow the link) and he explained that while a series of albums were planned, they started with Frankel's last score because Battle of the Bulge is still a film with a wide following, to say nothing of having the sort of 'big' score that has a good chance of appealing to both film music collectors and those who have bought the previous CPO symphony recordings. It is a big score, this CD running virtually 79 minutes and essentially containing all the music from the film: a few short cues, which were slight variations on material included on the album, were omitted because it wasn't possible to fit any more music onto the disc. However, there is twice as much music here as on the original soundtrack LP, and a lot of it is to all intents and purposes new because in the film it was mixed so low as to be nearly subliminal inaudible.
Those familiar with the film may initially to shocked to find the overture missing. Worry not, it is here, but where it really belongs, in correct film sequence as track 11, 'The Armaments Train'. What became the overture was actually written for this particular sequence, which in the finished film plays without music.
There are 18 tracks in all, with music ranging from exciting set-pieces such as 'The German Tanks Emerge and Break Through' to more reflective moments, 'Christmas at Ambleve', even incorporating traditional carols. There is the guilty pleasure of such source music as the 'Panzerlied', here including the essential rhythmic snap of marching feet, the sound of which was omitted from the original soundtrack. There is a huge amount of music to assimilate, from the savagery and desperate terror of 'Massacre at Malmedy' to the final triumph of 'The Panzermen Abandon their Tanks: Victory and Postlude'. This is not simply one of those very long scores which repeats the same couple of ideas over and over until the CD is full, but instead is packed with a wide variety of material worthy of much more detailed analysis than a simple review. Reflecting this, Dimitri Kennaway provides not only excellent accompanying notes but also illustrates the booklet with several significant musical examples. Of course none of this would mean a thing if the sound and performances were below-par. Fortunately the sound is as vivid and dynamic as one could hope for, and the performances, by players who are by now utterly familiar with and sympathetic to Frankel's musical world, simply superb. This is not just a feast of great film music, but a very significant album which will hopefully lead to the classical audience exploring more film music, and the soundtrack audience uncovering the riches of Frankel's symphonic output. Certainly album of the month, and undoubtedly one of the best re-recordings of the year.
Gary S. Dalkin
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