January 2000 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

Bernard HERRMANN and Alfred NEWMAN The Egyptian  Moscow Symphony Orchestra and Choir conducted by William T. Stromberg.   MARCO POLO 8.225078 [71:30]

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The Egyptian (1954) received a rough ride from the critics and it was not popular with audiences. (One reviewer remarked that it was "more risible than reasonable…")

Marlon Brando was originally slated to play the Doctor hero, Sinuhe, but he pulled out to be replaced by the wooden-faced (or rather glum and glowering-looking) and uncharismatic Edmund Purdom who seemed to be the kiss of death on so many films of this period. The film also starred Victor Mature, Peter Ustinov (the only actor to make any impression in this film) Bella Darvi (as the temptress Nefer, Nefer, Nefer) Gene Tierney, Michael Wilding, and Jean Simmons (as the martyred Merit). I add this detail because the usually excellent notes although analysing the cues in admirable detail, do not outline the plot in sufficient detail.

I will leave Rob Barnett to expound upon the detail of the score save to say that I was very impressed, and admired the way the music of Herrmann and Newman blend so well together. Their styles were quite different so this score is a tribute to their adaptability, sensitivity and supreme musicality. Herrmann’s contribution is more lyrical than usual and as in Citizen Kane he deploys his characterisation skills supremely well – note his damning portrayal of Sinuhe’s lust and Nefer Nefer Nefer’s greed and treachery. On the other hand, Newman tends to rein in his more refulgent tendencies and moves towards Herrmann’s more austere writing. His ‘Valley of the Kings’ and ‘Hymn To Aton’ are particularly successful and can be counted amongst his best creations. Both composers create a potent evocation of Ancient Egypt.

The sound is bright and clear and altogether I would place this new recording amongst the very best produced by the John Morgan/William T. Stromberg team.


Ian Lace

Rob Barnett adds:

We are becoming accustomed to this. Every new disc from this source is well prepared, the repertoire is chosen with acumen, the music is played and recorded with relish and the accompanying written material is as close to comprehensive as a 28 page booklet in one language (English) can get. Clearly Marco Polo had access to stills this time as they handsomely adorn this issues 28 page booklet (English only).

The Egyptian is one of those sword and sandal epics at which Hollywood excess excelled. Music plays a key part in the success of such things. Newmans and Herrmanns music is complementary and the seams are not obvious. Newman is a priest of the swooning string (and vocal) choir. Herrmann can do virtually anything and is easily the superior of the two composers. His imagination, translated into music and orchestral effect, is matchless although emotionalism is something that does not come easily to the Herrmann palette.

John Morgan does his usual masterful job and boils down a 100 min score to 71 min choosing the best. This is still a great deal of music.

Herrmann has us in the cupped palms of his hands from The Prelude (with its foreground-grabbing snarling trombones) onwards. Newman pulls off the same trick in ‘The New Pharaoh’ with horns echoing and re-echoing. Herrmanns salty dynamism and choler enliven ‘The Chariot Ride’ with its exciting antiphonal horn chase, the chaotic clamour of ‘Pursuit’ and the snorting brass of ‘Violence.’

In more atmospheric vein he gloriously portrays gloom (‘Ruins’), serenity (strings and plaintive woodwind in ‘The Red Sea’ and ‘The Nile’) and shifting exotic dreams (‘Nefer-Nefer-Nefer’). The harp and tambourine provide additional colour in ‘The Temple’. The Deed is celebrated in quiet serious strings following a tune of Prokofiev-like bearing. ‘The Harp and The Couch’ and the following track (‘The Perfection of Love’) wallow lightly and pleasantly in languor and contentment accompanying a strollingly high string theme.

Drama and local colour also come into ‘Taia’- an awkward dance and, speaking of dance, listen to Partys End for some sleekly sinuous pirouettes out of Balakirevs Symphonies or Ippolitov-Ivanov. Sibelius 1 and 2 are the wellsprings of The Rebuke - all brassy defiance. As for ‘The Homecoming’, this must have been a sour return with its howling Scythian clamour slashed through with Sibelian gusts. ‘The Tomb’ is sepulchral in the manner of Tchaikovsky 5 and Sibelius 1. Dance Macabre caterwauls in a glorious chaos indebted to the battle music from Prokofiev’s Nevsky score.

The Newman tracks are fascinating. ‘Her Name Was Merit’ is strikingly similar to a John Barry theme: Bond in sleepy romantic form. Akhnaton - those serene strings sphinx-like as in Red Sea and The Nile. ‘The Valley of the Kings’ is the longest track here - a tone poem in all but name. The repetitive tread of ‘The Hymn to Aton’ with chorus is hypnotic while Tchaikovsky must be the model for ‘Live For Our Son’. So too in its different gloomier way is the militaristic ‘Am I Dead?’ with its Mahlerian slouch (The Titan).

An indifferent film, maybe, but this score is a narcotic jag and a half. Hotly recommended.


Rob Barnett


Ian Lace

Rob Barnett

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