CD 1: King Kong, A Distant Trumpet, The Adventures of Don Juan, Parrish, The Flame and the Arrow, Now Voyager, The Caine Mutiny, Ice Palace, Life With Father, The Hanging Tree, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, Casablanca, The Charge of the Light Brigade
CD2: The Adventures of Mark Twain, Spencer's Mountain, The Searchers, Mildred Pierce, Seargent York, A Summer Place The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, The FBI Story, Johnny Belinda, Gone With the Wind
This typically expansive 2CD set from Silva Screen presents music, a mixture of suites and main titles and love themes, from 23 films from the extraordinary musical career of Max Steiner. Given that Steiner wrote music for around 300 films, this is inevitably only scratching the surface, though it does provide the best available introduction to the length and breadth, as well as the limitations, of Steiner's Hollywood vision. Not that those limitations were so much necessarily those of Steiner's vast ability, but rather those set by the framework of Hollywood film-making through the 1930's - 1960's. Given the length of time Steiner worked within the studio system, and all the changes wrought in the movie world through those decades, Steiner's sound and approach remained essentially unchanged (the pop arrangement by Percy Faith of the composer's love theme from 1959's A Summer Place being the only concession here to the changing times). Why after all should the man who wrote King Kong and Gone With the Wind, thus defining the blockbuster both in action/fantasy/adventure and in terms of sweeping romance accommodate the latest fads? It is an approach, its roots in Steiner's Viennese heritage, but assimilating folk, ethnic and Americana music along the way as necessary, which makes much of the music on these CDs both timeless and out-of-time, relics from a Hollywood long moved on into an entirely different view of the value of music in film. Excepting an introductory note in the booklet which attempts to establish Steiner as the greatest of all film composers - surely, if such an honour can be assigned at all, it belongs to Miklós Rózsa - this is a well-balanced set which while including a veritable roll-call of Hollywood classics gratifyingly takes time to include notable music from forgotten films.
Indeed, alongside such essential items as the overture from King Kong and suites from The Adventures of Don Juan and Casablanca, by far the longest selections on the first disc are suites from The Flame and the Arrow (8.57) and Ice Palace (10.22). Neither readily spring to mind when considering all the famous titles Steiner scored, but they are worthwhile choices. The Flame and the Arrow was a 1950 swashbuckler from which has been distilled a suite of pure adventurous fun, Ice Palace a 1960 drama on the history of Alaska. The music contains both gorgeous romantic lyricism, and glittering atmospheric writing of a sort more commonly associated with Herrmann. Also notable is the intensely dramatic suite from 1959 western The Hanging Tree, again a film which has been all lost.
Highlights of the second disc include the lengthy overture from The Adventures of Mark Twain, enabling Steiner to indulge in some unabashed Americana, and an essential suite from John Ford's western, The Searchers. The Dark at the Top of the Stairs suite opens with a lyrical waltz and far from darkness, contains much that is sentimentally charming, a harmonica theme designed to replicate the success of the previous year's A Summer Place. We get a version of the Faith arranged pop theme from that picture too, preceded by Steiner's own far superior main title. Inevitably the main event is saved for last, seven selections in three tracks comprising a suite from Gone With the Wind, one of the biggest and still one of the best film scores ever penned. 14 minutes can not begin to do this score justice, but Silva have artfully distilled something of the essence of Gone With the Wind. If you are satisfied with a selection of well chosen highlights this will suffice. If it wets your appetite for more head for the Charles Gerhardt National Philharmonic album-length re-recording, or even the complete original soundtrack.
Long overlooked, Steiner's music has at length begun to enter the catalogue in some quantity, mainly through the sterling efforts of the Marco Polo label and most recently their complete recording of his music for Son of Kong and The Most Dangerous Game. However, this current set in offering music from so many films certainly provides the fullest introduction to the composer's work, and as such is very warmly recommended indeed. It can not but give hours of pleasure.
Gary S. Dalkin
Paul Tonks adds:-
It’s great to see Silva’s Essential series extending into the careers of composers who generally get left behind when it comes to compilations. Their Moross collection was a welcome entry, and with one for Alfred Newman due any time it looks like they’re cornering the market on availability of some of the finest Golden Age material.
This double disc spectacular can only scratch the surface of an enormous career, but does so in fine representative style. The big big well-knowns are here: King Kong, The Adventures of Don Juan, Now Voyager, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Casablanca, The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Adventures of Mark Twain, The Searchers, and Gone With the Wind. What always makes a compilation worth seeking out is the material that’s otherwise difficult to find. This is where Silva is increasingly putting themselves out on the behalf of the collector.
Thrill therefore to a 10-minute suite from Ice Palace, 7 minutes from The Hanging Tree, and 8 minutes from Johnny Belinda. Just to namecheck everything else, the scores represented by suites and themes in between are: A Distant Trumpet, Parrish, The Flame and the Arrow, The Caine Mutiny, Life With Father, Spencer’s Mountain, Mildred Pierce, Sergeant York, A Summer Place, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, and The FBI Story.
Having made the case for collectors above, the next aspect to address belongs to in the purlieu of the purist. Split across 2 orchestras, conductors, engineers, and studios this may not have the consistency in performance some collectors may insist upon. On top of that, the dynamics in performance and tempo may also be questionable to the ear of hardcore Steiner fans. Anyone following Silva’s Essentials series ought to know to expect this, but in opening with King Kong and an interpretation that’s lacking the piece’s quintessential ‘punch’, some listeners may miss their originals.
For the intended audience on a voyage of discovery, this compilation will be ‘essential’ nonetheless.