January 2000 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

Stephen WARBECK A Christmas Carol   Original Television Score   VARÈSE SARABANDE VSD-6071 [44:16]

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Following Merlin, Journey to the Center of the Earth and Animal Farm, here is yet another lavish Hallmark TV movie. This time Charles Dicken's much filmed family favourite returns with Patrick Stewart's Scrooge boldly going where so many fine actors have gone before. Accompanying him in the highly acclaimed film are Richard E. Grant, Saskia Reeves and Celia Imrie, Dominic West and Joel Grey.

If the cover art and stills of the soundtrack CD are any indication, this is an appropriately dark and gothic treatment of the classic. Surrounded by darkness, a black-clad Patrick Stewart looks thoroughly menacing and certainly in need of redemption.

There are many soundtrack albums that can be enjoyed purely as a musical entity, quite disconnected from the subject of the film the music was written to accompany. Others are, for various reasons, necessarily intimately entwined with the subject of the movie. Here is one such score, and an excellent one it is too. Over 29 often very short tracks Stephen Warbeck builds a musical tapestry which balances his own new themes with instantly recognisable music of the Christmas season.

The opening 'Funeral' is filled with serene foreboding, leading to an elegant and very English main theme first stated in 'Walking Home'. A warm brass arrangement of 'O Little Town of Bethlehem' is contrasted with the chill strings which herald the appearance of 'Marley's Ghost', while 'The Torture of Remorse' is glacial in its emotional bleakness. A sombre treatment of the main theme is given in 'Wandering Ghosts', an echo of the darkest moments of the composer's Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love. 'The Ghost of Christmas Past' has an utterly lovely sense of pastoral melancholy, the brief 'Fran's Tune', is a lyrical pipe lament.

'Fezziwig's Party', a longer track divided into four sections, is a very different affair, offering a lively jig and a jolly song, a polka and a waltz, all linked with cheery sounds of celebration. 'Scrooge Alone' provides another beguiling melancholy melody, with now a greater human warmth being expressed by a solo violin. More atmospherics lead to a setting of 'Silent Night', the deliberately unpolished voices evoking the genuine sound of carol singers, rather than the beauty of a choral treatment. Several other Christmas melodies appear in various guises, 'The First Noel' and 'God Rest You Merry Gentlemen', between them lie passages of breathless spectral beauty, delicate orchestration shimmering like cold fire balanced between the light and the dark. A questing urgency appears in the relentless strings of 'Ignorance and Want', before Scrooge finally faces 'Death' the tolling of a graveyard bell marking the turning point, as the music builds to a pitch of bleak intensity briefly reminiscent of Vaughan-Williams later symphonies. The final tracks are in celebratory mood, as Scrooge return to humanity, with the ode to shyness 'Topper's Song' being the sort of brief ditty Eric Idle might once have written. 'Christmas Polka' offers playful pizzicato piano, 'A Different Side to Scrooge' is both warm and poignant, while 'The End' is upliftingly romantic in the best English tradition.

A Christmas Carol is a fine score which I can only imagine must work splendidly with the film. The CD itself offers many pleasures, though the fact that many tracks are very short, combined with the decidedly wide range of moods and atmospheres, means that this is probably not an album with such a general appeal as the Shakespeare in Love soundtrack. Nevertheless, for serious film music lovers, this is a most appealing release, and further evidence of the fine talents of one of our most composers.


Gary S. Dalkin


Gary S. Dalkin

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