An ambitious 2 CD set of film music inspired by cinematic Shakespearean works (and one about the writer himself!), ably performed by The City of Prague Philharmonic and Crouch End Festival Chorus, conducted by Paul Bateman, Nic Raine and Kenneth Alwyn.
Disc 1 begins with a suite from Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944) by William Walton, a richly symphonic, classical piece as you might expect from this composer. This long selection at over twenty minutes is a wonderful encapsulation of all of the themes and motifs featured in the film, with the highlights the stirring, choral extravagance of ‘Finale - The Agincourt Song’ and ‘Pasacaglia-The Death of Falstaff’, a haunting, melancholy cue that shows no signs of ageing whatsoever and while still classical in stylistic terms manages to sound somehow modern too. Quite a feat!
Two Hamlets follow with the 1964 Russian production directed by Grigori Kozintsev showcasing work composed by Dimitri Shostakovich. His ‘Prelude’ has a harsh, frosty sensibility while the ‘Ball at the Palace’ with its light semi-classical tone is quite the opposite. Better though is to be found on Kenneth Branagh’s 1998 mammoth recreation, working alongside regular musical collaborator Patrick Doyle. ‘Sweets to the Sweet Farewell’ is very typical of this composer (which is a good thing in my book), sensitive and melodic and Doyle could be said to be the modern day musical voice of Shakespeare and if that is indeed the case, the Bard should be well pleased. More from the Branagh/Doyle team is drawn from Much Ado About Nothing (1997), its ‘Overture’ a wonderful, stirring and uplifting piece coupled with the exquisite, heart-rending, then rousing and life affirming ‘Goddess of the Night/Strike Up, Pipers’.
Antony and Cleopatra (1972) has a suite by John Scott, a refined offering with strong melodic appeal and plenty of colour, but better still is the ‘Overture’ from the 1969 all-star version of Julius Caesar (1969), an emotive Michael J. Lewis composition which is a poignant, symphonic triumph. If only he wasn’t out of fashion in modern film scoring. I miss him! An earlier take on the famous play in 1953 starring Marlon Brando is also featured with ‘Caesar Now be Still/Finale’ by Miklos Rozsa. Here the composer’s distinctive brass opens dramatically before strings take up a kind of subdued lament, becoming bolder and overtly but effectively melodramatic towards the end.
Disc 2 begins in more upbeat mood with the ‘Overture’ from The Taming of the Shrew (1967), a full blooded bit of high jinx from Nino Rota, although this is punctuated by a wistful, gentle melody. More William Walton follows with his ‘Prelude’ from Richard III (1955), although this extract has not dated nearly as well as his work on Henry V and is surprisingly pedestrian in places. The same can be said for ‘The Balcony Scene’ from Romeo + Juliet (1996) by Craig Armstrong, although it a very different kind of cue with a subtle, hesitant solo piano with string backing, but it never really takes flight and remains only middling.
Of far greater quality is the score from an earlier version of the story of the ill-fated lovers made in1968, represented by a seven minute plus suite by Nino Rota. The central theme is a very beautiful, emotional melody, although it’s a great pity that in some ways the impact of the music has been undermined due to its use in other media (radio in particular). Even so, potent stuff.
Bang up to date is ‘Love Labour’s Lost/Arrival of the Princess’ from Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000), another Branagh and Patrick Doyle union, but this has a slightly over familiar feel to it, as though Doyle were recycling a little. Pleasant, but below par for this composer. Ironically, Stephen Warbeck’s suite from Shakespeare in Love (1999) has a main theme that reminded me greatly of a Patrick Doyle piece, at least in melodic terms and it is certainly superior to the previous track. Let me point out though that as Doyle is a great favourite of mine that only applies to this individual comparison! Less involving for me, but again relatively enjoyable is the whimsical classical piece ‘Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana’ by Pietro Mascagni from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999). And much the same can be said for Shaun Davey’s brace of songs from Twelfth Night (1998), the brief ‘I’ll Tell Thee a Tale’ and the folksy ‘The Wind and the Rain’, both performed with aplomb by actor Ben Kingsley. But if my lack of enthusiasm for Patrick Doyle’s contribution to Love’s Labour’s Lost has upset anyone, things are hopefully put right by his superb extended suite from Henry V (1989), the music dramatically satisfying and affecting with ‘St. Crispin’s Day’ a standout.
Thrown in for good measure (for measure!) are a number of famous dialogue excerpts read by Derek Jacobi, Jenny Agutter and Ioan Gruffudd ("To be, or not to be, that is the question", "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears" etc.), but how much film music fans will get out of these pieces is debatable. For me, most played a little flat and would have greatly benefited from being spoken over some background music. Check out Branagh’s "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more" speech in the actual film version of Henry V, supported by Doyle’s powerful score to see what I mean. Of course I can well understand that this may have caused problems, because in the end we all want to hear the music without distraction. Nevertheless, perhaps a compromise could have been reached with small sections of the music repeated to play with the vocal extracts. Just a thought anyway!
Despite these minor reservations this is a very rewarding, entertaining collection (although admittedly Disc 1 features by far the stronger material overall) that illustrates how well served the Bard has been in musical terms over the years he has been represented in the cinema. And even if you do not particularly enjoy Shakespeare’s work on the page, this will still win you over as the music is brimming with invention and quality. If music be the food of love I for one will take a second helping.