March 2000 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

Richard Rodney BENNETT & John TAVENER Gormenghast Orchestral score by Richard Rodney Bennett, the BBC Philharmonic conducted by John Harle. Choral music by John Tavener, The Academy of Ancient Music conducted by Paul Goodwin, with The Choir of Temple Church directed by Stephen Layton. Title song sung by Andrew Johnson.   SONY SK89135 [67:20]

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Special Gormenghast Feature
CD, Book and Video review

The CD

Gormenghast, the BBC adaptation of Titus Groan and Gormenghast, the first two books of an uncompleted sequence of novels by Mervin Peak, is a major television event. Though rather more of an event than it would have been had the BBC not long ago rejected its obligation to a balanced output of drama, including regular, serious, well-made and intelligent adult science fiction and fantasy. Hopefully, Gormenghast marks the beginning of the BBC starting to put things right, though more realistically, it will probably be something the BBC use as an excuse to do nothing else for the next 30 years.

For the moment though, via this lavish gothic fairytale the BBC is taking the fantastical seriously, for which no further evidence is required than to look at the names responsible for the music. Though not prolific, Richard Rodney Bennett is one of our finest film composers, his great score for Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) alone sufficient to rank him with the best. His music is conducted by the composer John Harle, himself a member of the Michael Nyman Orchestra, and who can currently be heard playing the saxophone on the soundtrack of The End of the Affair. The producers managed a further coup in signing one of the most acclaimed and popular contemporary 'classical' composers, John Tavener (which is not to say that Bennett does not also write concert music), to provide four choral pieces. Resolutely committed to the Greek Orthodox interpretation of the Christian faith, for decades virtually all of Tavener's works have been serious religious compositions, so engaging him for a television drama really is an achievement in itself.

Gormenghast is a vast, crumbling castle subject to arcane law and ruled by a detached and eccentric aristocracy. Published in the aftermath of the Second World War, there is clearly a large element of social satire, a commentary on a British Empire in decline looking back to better days. The drama is also informed by a certain orientalism of outlook, Peak having spent his childhood in a remote part of China, though this is more implicit than explicit. Accordingly, Bennett has fashioned a score solidly within the 20th century English classical tradition. Here is confident, imperious music, complete with a very strong main theme and regal fanfares such as aptly describes the imperial and noble nature of Gormenghast. The beautifully crafted and performed title song sets a text from Peak's books. Within this sound world is a rich, sultry musical fantasy, an exoticism which suggests the human desires locked within the monumental architectural and social structures. Inside this, is darkly brooding and inventively suspenseful dramatic writing which calls to mind Bernard Herrmann and his wonderful work for Jane Eyre or The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, without for a moment ever becoming derivative.

The range of orchestration is dazzling, for gorgeous harp and strings for the opening of 'Ceremony in the Rain', to the glittering panoply of percussion which runs throughout many of the tracks. 'The Death of Swelter' summons visions of John Williams scale epic action writing, while 'Irma's Romance' offers a waltz which may not surpass Bennett's own Murder on the Orient Express, but is certainly a fine companion. 'The Death of Steerpike' is a powerful finale, while the following funeral music and farewell bring the album to a thoroughly satisfying conclusion.

John Tavener's music illustrates the rituals which take-place on screen in various parts of the story. Three are new works, while one is adapted from music the composer wrote for his father's funeral. The arrangements are by Paul Goodwin. The music is characteristic of the composer, eloquent, beautiful, and strange by turns.

The sound throughout is superb, with a detail and clarity befitting a first class classical release, and the performances are magnificent. Television music has been improving immeasurably in recent years, and regardless of carping from certain quarters, Gormenghast is simply one of the finest scores ever written for the medium. The album is generously expansive, but not for a moment does it outstay its welcome, making it an absolutely essential release. Reviewer

Gary S. Dalkin

The Art Book

THE ART OF GORMENGHAST The Making of a Television Fantasy By Estelle Daniel with a Foreword by Stephen Fry  A BBC Project published by Harper Collins Entertainment 164 pages softback, large format (11 inches x 81/2 inches, portrait) £14:99

Amazon UK £11.99

This is a lavish and comprehensive souvenir of an outstanding BBC production.

For many years it was believed that Mevyn Peake's celebrated novels were not suitable for adaptation as screenplays. Indeed, the first thing you see when you open this book is the ironic reproduction of a letter, dated 30th November 1962, to Maeve Gilmore, Mervyn Peake's wife, from the author Graham Greene asserting that Titus Groan, the first novel of the Gormenghast trilogy, could not be filmed!

In an erudite Foreword, Stephen Fry summarises and argues against the objections that were first levelled at the idea of such a project - 'Can't be done... impossible.... Gormenghast is too gothic, gloomy, grotesque... Then we have a useful reminder, a synopsis of the four episodes of the television dramatisation. The concept of the BBC dramatisation and its development is covered before a section devoted to the life of Mervyn Peake and how he came to write his Gormenghast books including a discussion of the influences that guided his creation in both words and pictures. His boyhood life in China and his World War II experiences being major influences.

The art direction is covered in fascinating detail. We learn how Gormenghast was developed visually and how the buildings reflected many architectural styles from European Gothic through Near Eastern structures to the exoticism of Tibet and the Orient. Descriptions of the construction of the sets are included with many revealing illustrations. The costumes are beautifully illustrated with many full page close-ups showing their rich intricate design - the gowns, of Fuschia, Irma Prunesquallor, the identical twins and Lady Groan, based on the fashions of the Elizabethans, are all included. We learn, too, that the design of the tall, eccentrically bent hat of Nannie Slagg was taken from a Spanish gypsy mode from the 1930s.

A full diary of the production is included, so too are a number of story boards of key sequences like: the 'Earling' ceremony; the burning of the library, and the death of Barquentine. There is coverage of the way the animals were handled, the mass of white cats and birds etc; plus the influences that affected Richard Rodney Bennett's musical composition.

There are also many personal contributions, scattered through the book, from the actors who say something of what their roles meant to them and how they approached their interpretation of Mervyn Peake's characters.

A first class production that will be referred to time and again and worth every penny of its £15.


Ian Lace

The Video

GORMENGHAST The Complete Drama in Four Episodes 2 video pack BBC Videos [245 mins]

The complete BBC TV production of Gormenghast comes in a two-video package each comprising two episodes. Viewers not only have a wonderful souvenir of an outstanding series, but also the chance to really ogle the wealth of detail that might have escaped them on a first viewing: the sumptuous costumes, the glorious and imaginative sets, the mind-boggling effects, and the superb ensemble acting. But for lovers of film music, repeated viewings of these videos greatly assists in a full appreciation of Richard Rodney Bennett's achievement. Gary Dalkin, in his review of the CD above, has already mentioned the influence of Bernard Herrmann and John Williams but the influence of the English music tradition is even more evident. Walton in ceremonial dress, Cyril Scott's exotic orientalism (befitting the identical twins); and Holst, Vaughan Williams, Warlock and Constant Lambert are all evident. The music used to underscore Lord Groan's tragedy, his loss of his library, and his subsequent descent into madness; and his interaction with the villainous Steerpike and his capricious daughter, Lady Fuschia, is especially noteworthy. This is a telling mix of desolate figures recalling Holst's Egdon Heath, cruel, combative, remote and detached material suggestive of music in Vaughan Williams's 4th and 6th Symphonies and ethereal, other-worldly impressionistic material for the child-like Fuschia. The influence of the impressionists is close too in other parts of the score notably the beautiful and darkly romantic forest music and Ravel's La Valse, recalled in connection with the romantic yearnings of the bumbling bespectacled Irma Prunsquallor. Titus's song, that opens each episode is arresting too, 'Hold Fast to the Law...Hold fast, Gormenghast'; and the weird quivering figures of the Carver's Ceremony together with even weirder bass voice chantings (presumably by Tavener) and heavy oriental gong strokes. Then there are the macabre figures for the hilarious and grotesque duel between Flay and Swelter.

Repeated viewings also help one to appreciate the 'more difficult' choral music contributions from John Tavener, for Titus's Christening, music that resounds with ancient, timeless rituals and the disturbing, edgy material for the Earling ceremony that seems to be full of foreboding and presentiment; and the gentler elegiac but monotonous intoning for poor Fuschia's funeral'


Ian Lace.

Gary S. Dalkin

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