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Sir Richard Rodney BENNETT (b. 1936) - Film Music Collection: Film Music CD Reviews- January 2001

January 2001 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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EDITOR’s CHOICE January 2001


Sir Richard Rodney BENNETT (b. 1936)
Film Music:  
Murder on the Orient Express; Far from the Madding Crowd; Tender is the Night; Four Weddings and a Funeral; Enchanted April; Lady Caroline Lamb
  Rumon Gamba conducting the BBC Philharmonic
  CHANDOS CHAN 9867   [69:45]

It is amazing to think that Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, knighted in 1998 for his services to music has written so much music: orchestral works, quartets, concertos, symphonies, operas, ballets, songs, madrigals, jazz pieces and much more - all totalling over 600 items! He has scored over 50 films (including some documentaries in the earlier part of his career). This album comprises a fair cross-section.

Usually we only hear Bennett's celebrated waltz from Murder on the Orient Express so the eleven-minute suite from the 1974 Academy Award nominated score is most welcome. Gamba, aided by Chandos's superbly dynamic and detailed sound, gives a thrilling reading of this glittering, sophisticated music for the smart set travelling on a mission to kill, on Europe's premier train. The music reflects the styles of that hedonistic era between the two world wars: waltzes, tangos and music played in the salon style. There is, as to be expected, an element of murky mystery and swift violence; but there is appealing elegiac material too. But overall, there is the glamour and urgency of the great powerful train itself.

From international sophistication, the prograame turns to a smaller world of rural romantic tragedy and to John Schlesinger's 1967 film of Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd starring Julie Christie, Peter Finch, Alan Bates and Terence Stamp. Although the film had mixed reviews, Bennett's score was Oscar-nominated. Bennett wrote some beguiling pastoral themes, notably the poignant Bathsheba love theme. Opposed to this delicacy, is some very astringent, harsh, dissonant folk-like material that underlies the cruel reality of rural life like the loss of the shepherd's (Bates) flock of sheep (they throw themselves over the edge of a cliff) leaving him penniless and unable to pursue his love, Bathsheba. There is also bravado music for the proud, womanising soldier (Stamp), counterbalanced with elegiac material and music that, in its sense of chill isolation, recalls Holst's Egdon Heath.

Bennett has arranged his music for the 1972 film Lady Caroline Lamb as an elegy for orchestra and that Cinderella of the orchestra, the viola. His music for this film, which was about Lady Caroline Lamb's disastrous obsessive love for the poet Lord Byron, is distinguished by a very appealing tender romantic melody that is redolent of the Lady's yearning. The work is presented in two movements. Before the love theme is stated in the first of these, there is headlong skittish, neurotic music portraying the rash, foolish woman. Afterwards comes some comically ironical military music of some pomposity which includes (Lady Lamb's?) sighs before the mood darkens - perhaps signifying Lady Lamb's encroaching madness. The second movement reprises the love music, which becomes the theme for a set of variations: some dreamily nocturnal, some passionate, some troubled. Philip Dukes is a sensitive and refined soloist.

Cynthia Miller adds an ethereal touch, playing her ondes martenot for Bennett's Enchanted April score. This 1991 Merchant Ivory production dealt with the lives and loves of a handful of English ladies spending an idyllic month in an Italian villa. Accordingly, Bennett responded with a mellow nostalgic score, in which the ondes martenot transports the characters, and us, away from the ordinary, everyday world - to somewhere that is extraordinary and enchanted. His music is very delicate, atmospheric and impressionistic; and very reminiscent of both Debussy and Ravel (Ravel in Chinoiserie mode). At one point this delicate fantasy is grounded by the strains of Elgar's Chanson de matin played on a cor anglais but the peaceful idyllic mood is soon reinstated. A lovely work that perhaps is too fragile for its 19-minute length.

The concert is completed by two shorter works: the Nicole's haunting theme from the 1985 TV production, Tender is the Night, although I would argue that this is not its premiere recording for I remember hearing it the soundtrack recording I purchased at that time. I would also argue that Nicole was rehabilitated by the man she married and it was the strain of that work which caused his destruction! The concluding item is the touching and plaintive love theme for Four Weddings and a Funeral that tended to be overshadowed by more familiar pop source music.

Gamba leads the BBC Philharmonic in committed, romantic performances. A delightful album and strongly recommended.

Ian Lace


Gary S. Dalkin adds

Following the marvellous Film Music of Malcolm Arnold Volume 2 comes this equally splendid anthology from Chandos devoted to the Film Music of Sir Richard Rodney Bennett. Once again we are in the exceptionally capable hands of Rumon Gamba and the BBC Philharmonic, offering almost seventy minutes of immensely characterful and attractive music. There are more extended suites than usual here, meaning that only six films are featured. The usual suspects are on show, beginning with a first class ticket to Murder on the Orient Express (1974).

This was the first cinema all-star cast adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel, and led through Death on the Nile (1978) to a huge number of TV movies based on the famed crime writer's work. Bennett's music for Murder on the Orient Express is one of those scores based on an idea that seems initially bizarre, but so brilliant that in retrospect it becomes impossible to imagine the film any other way. And the idea: to found this 1920's murder mystery on a main theme of a waltz, then develop the score as a series of dances appropriate to the period. The glorious waltz is surely now one of the most famous English film themes ever penned, but there is a tango here which is equally charming, with much witty and sophisticated, to say nothing of luxuriously well-appointed, scoring in-between. The score, which won the BAFTA Award, is here condensed into an 11-minute suite which leaves one wanting a second helping. What better recommendation could there be?

Directed by John Scheslinger, Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) is one of the greatest British films ever made. Icons of the era Julie Christie and Terrance Stamp starred in a production in which a sense of time and place was fundamental to the success of the drama, realised by the magnificent 70mm cinematography by Nic Roeg, and by the utterly apposite scoring by Richard Rodney Bennett. One of the glories of this score is that, so appropriate is it, that it seems to come out of the landscape itself, so intimately fused with the celluloid as to be seamless. This is the essence of Englishness, drawn from the same well as Vaughan-Williams folksong inspired suites and orchestral works. Indeed, this could have been a 'Wessex Suite'.

Contained in 15-minutes of score are all the traits those who scorn the English pastoral tradition despise: the landscape music, the lonely woodwinds, mournful in the distance, the aching strings, the tragic melancholy and grandeur, the rich melody, the pure sense of place and continuity; the sense that life will go on. The suite here is the same as on Silva Screen's Cinema's Classic Romances album (SILKD 6018), and good as the version there was, the BBC Philharmonic inevitably have the edge not just in terms of musicianship, but in idiom. This is a brilliant score, and the suite here is the version to have.

There is another suite here which has appeared before in the comparatively recent past. Enchanted April is represented by a 19-minute suite, a version of which appeared on a BBC Music Magazine cover CD with Neil Richardson conducting an uncredited orchestra - presumably the same pick-up band which performed the film soundtrack. This disc appeared in late 1995 and also featured Bennett's Partita for Orchestra and Four Jazz Songs, performed by the composer himself. Although officially only available with the magazine, the disc can be found without much trouble for £2-3 by browsing through various second-hand music shops. If you see I copy it's well worth picking up.

Enchanted April was a 1992 BBC TV film which escaped into the cinemas for a couple of weeks. In his booklet notes Alexander Gibson makes the understandable mistake of attributing the production to Merchant / Ivory - akin to A Room With A View (1985), it is a prettily shot period tale of the genteel English on holiday in Italy - but it is in-fact a Mike Newell film. This is important, as it lead directly to Bennett scoring Newell's phenomenally successful Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), a brief cue from which is also included on this album. Actually, Gibson also makes the strange assertion that the period 1963-1990 is a 'few years' in Bennett's career. A few years in geological terms certainly, but a lengthy span out of a lifetime.

Back to Enchanted April. This is a lovely, languid score offering several very attractive melodies, central to which is the distinctive sound of the ondes martenot - a electronic instrument similar to the theremin. In one startling omission, we are not told anywhere who the soloist is. This is sensual, sultry, heady music, just right for the intoxicating sun of Italy and the torpid atmosphere wherein anything, or nothing, might happen. It is music for shady arbours, erotic glances and understated suggestion. There is at times an edge of neurosis, of English repression beneath the enticing scents, music which at times leads into the same dream-reveries as the work of maverick French composer Charles Koechlin. The only problem with this suite is that nothing really happens for quite a long time. At 19-minutes this is too extended for the content, though Gamba does keep a tighter reign on proceedings than Richardson, who allows the same music to run on for three minutes more. Again, the BBC Philharmonic's is the version to have.

'Nicole's Theme' from the 1985 TV version of Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night is more 1920's-flavoured writing. Another delightful dance which makes an appealing sequel to Murder on the Orient Express. Which leaves one more work, and the piece which will most likely lead to a crossover with Chando's classical market: a concert work, Elegy for Viola and Orchestra, reworked from the score from the 1972 feature film Lady Caroline Lamb. After providing screenplays for David Lean's greatest triumphs, Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago, as well as the critically lambasted masterpiece Ryan's Daughter (Lean's finest film in this critic's humble opinion), Lady Caroline Lamb was Robert Bolt's one and only film as a director. An historical drama on a less lavish, though still exquisitely shot, scale than Lean, the film appears to have vanished without trace. Quite an achievement for a release with Lawrence Olivier as the Duke of Wellington, Ralph Richardson as George III and John Mills as Canning, not to mention Richard Chamberlin as Byron and Bolt's own wife Sarah Miles in the title role. The film may not have been as good, but Bennett delivered another romantic score which proved a worthy sequel to Far From the Madding Crowd. Rather than simply present a suite from the score, Bennett fashioned the Elegy presented here.

The piece is in two movements totalling 17-minutes in this recording, and is again quintessentially English melancholy. More formal elements, and the employment of harpsichord, suggest the period of the film, yet ultimately this work remains firmly within the 20th century English pastoral tradition. Philip Dukes delivers some lovely solo playing, while the central theme is later echoed in the music from Enchanted April.

The production values, as ever from Chandos, are first class. The music is very good, and other than the suite from Enchanted April outstaying its welcome a little, the selection can not be faulted. With Gormenghast last year and now this it is good to see Bennett back in the limelight. Another exceptional release from Chandos - now roll on the Arthur Bliss album

Gary S. Dalkin

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