March 2003 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Gary S. Dalkin
Managing Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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EDITOR’s RECOMMENDATION March 2003

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The Day the Earth Stood Still  
Music composed by Bernard Herrmann
  Conducted by Joel McNeely
  Available on Varese Sarabande VSD-6314  
Running time 38.26
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day the earth stood still

Competition

Thanks to Pinnacle Records we have three copies of this new Varèse Sarabande re-recording of Bernard Herrmann's landmark science fiction score The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951). For a chance to win a copy email me at gsdalkin.fmw@btopenworld.com with your suggestion as to the most under-rated science fiction score. Tell me your reasons why and you may find an album winging its way to you. Please remember to include your postal address. Closing date: April 10 2003.

Review

Some scores are more admired than enjoyed. Herrmann’s 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still is a case in point, a work that has perhaps attracted more laudatory adjectives (“seminal”, “groundbreaking”, “visionary”) over the years than devoted listeners. The score’s mix of electronic and acoustic instruments, and the bold doubling of individual instruments to produce “otherworldly” textures is rightly admired; but it probably doesn’t rate as many people’s favourite Herrmann score. And while the original Fox classics soundtrack CD (released in 1993) is the kind of milestone album that every self-respecting film music buff simply must have in their collection, how many people can honestly say they play it very often? I confess my own copy had become shamefully dusty by the time I took it off the shelf for comparative listening purposes. Worse still, I have to admit that I soon put it back again after I had played Varèse’s new disc.

Much as I respect the original, I’ve always found that once beyond the striking twin-theremin and piano opening (“Prelude/Outer Space/Radar”), the series of extremely short cues make the album feel rather disjointed. Add to that a flat mono sound which obscures some of the work’s subtleties, and the result has not been for me the most pleasurable listening experience. The twin virtues of this new Varèse recording are its shiny, all-digital sound--bright and with plenty of “presence”--and its thoroughgoing musicality. Thanks are due both to engineer Jonathan Allen (a regular on these Varèse projects as well as veteran of many big Abbey Road scoring sessions) and Joel McNeely. An experienced Herrmann conductor and a fine composer in his own right, McNeely shapes the separate cues with a conductor’s true instinct into a coherent whole; here individually impressive pieces--“Arlington” or “Gort’s Rage” for example--don’t sound so much like isolated tracks as the ebbing and flowing of a single musical tide.

Neither McNeely nor Allen attempt slavishly to reproduce the sound of the 1951 recording. As Allen notes in the CD booklet, he was faced with the prospect of translating Herrmann’s original intentions into “a vivid stereo image”, which involved some creative solutions for instrumental balance and studio layout. The final product is remarkably faithful to the spirit of the original while unafraid to depart from it in matters of detail. McNeely is slower in places, faster in others, making each cue fit his vision of the complete work; the sound balance, meanwhile, clarifies the muddy textures of the mono original, making it easier to hear the ensemble playing rather than just spotlighting the Theremin or organ (notably, Celia Sheen’s solo Theremin is less up front here than those double Theremins of the soundtrack).

It’s not all perfect, of course. Those chaotic, crashing chords of “The Visor” sound a little weak on this new recording, and the heavy tread of Gort’s feet seem a little too light: the menacing air of the soundtrack is softened just a bit too much. But overall, as with their previous Herrmann albums, the team at Varese have succeeded in giving us more than just a clean digital copy of an old classic: they have established that this score deserves not only to be respected as a pioneering work, but also to be heard and enjoyed as a piece of music. I for one will be keeping this new recording close to my CD player for some time to come.

Mark Walker

**** 4

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