May 2004 Film Music CD Reviews

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

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Love From A Stranger: Four British Film Scores  

  • Benjamin Britten: Love From A Stranger (1936) 10:21
  • Roberto Gerhard: This Sporting Life (1963) 15:21
  • Elisabeth Lutyens: The Skull (1965) 17:04
  • Richard Rodney Bennett: The Return Of The Soldier (1982) 20:36
  BBC Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Jac Van Steen
  Available on NMC Records NMC D073
Total Running Time: 63:22
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love from a stranger

The tradition of British film music and indeed European film music in general - was always different in character to the Hollywood approach to scoring movies. The American studios' practice of maintaining composers whose exclusive brief was to compose for films rather than pursue any classical ambitions meant that American film music, although nominally symphonic, set an early divergent path from the classical mainstream, establishing its own unique characteristics. However, a swelling ocean away, film music in Britain has always happily co-existed with concert repertoire and had run a fascinating parallel course. The predominant practice has been for films to be scored in a "neo-classical" style by leading composers happy to accept the financial inducements offered by film commissions, and not least the ready opportunity to experiment. And whilst compositions for film can rarely be regarded as "pure music" they nevertheless often attain the very highest level of inspiration, can be irresistibly attractive, and offer a unique insight into how a composer of concert works astutely adapts their style or method of working to embrace the very particular disciplines required by film composition.

Whilst William Alwyn, Benjamin Frankel, Malcolm Arnold, Gerard Schurmann, William Walton and even Vaughan Williams among others have been much associated with film music, Benjamin Britten's known association with the medium has been almost exclusively restricted to his compositions for short documentary films, and in particular for Night Mail in 1936. But in that same year the young Britten did compose for the feature film Love From A Stranger, derived from an Agatha Christie tale and starring Ann Harding and Basil Rathbone. The film has faded into obscurity, but perhaps bequeathing the best of its constituents, its score, to posterity. This enterprising new recording now places this fascinating Britten oeuvre back where it rightfully belongs, in the public arena. The music for Love From A Stranger is lithe and lively, amiable and appealing and straightforward in its allure. It may be just as well that the cascading years have divorced this music from the film, for if the aging original reels could be salvaged from dusty cans they might now betray a movie which creaks with period atrophy - and this music is worth so very much more than that, weathering time to emerge an attractive and spirited work very much at home in the twenty-first century.

The compositions of Roberto Gerhard may seem to embody the very antithesis of "movie music". His acerbic idiom is modernistic as might be expected of a pupil of Schoenberg and patently eschews one of the accepted staples of film music winning melody. But perhaps Gerhard's barbed and fiercely unromantic score for Lindsay Anderson's realistic take on the world of rugby football, This Sporting Life, is exactly what the film requires. And certainly Gerhard's obdurate approach holds a cracked musical mirror to the spiky and complex relationship at the centre of this film that between the characters portrayed by Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts. Languorous melody would not be appropriate here but even given this, Gerhard's music is still vastly uncompromising in terms of scoring for mainstream cinema but actually perfectly in step with the avant garde mode of the neoteric classical style then prevalent in Sixties Britain - bleak, coarse-grained and gritty like the film. This Sporting Life was very much a psychological drama and Gerhard's particularly potent idiom is patently more adept than most at delving beneath the psyche as this cogent suite persuasively attests.

More than anywhere during the Sixties avant garde music was to find a home in the British horror film. Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of the horror movie during this era was its use of music the compositions unbridled and innovative as dissonance, bizarre instrumentation, even purely atonal music came to be indelibly identified with madness and mayhem. It seems an army of ambitious radical composers commandeered the terror genre, effectively creating a premier epoch for British film music with scores actually reflecting the tenor of what was truly occurring in contemporary composition. Modern music, it seems, had finally arrived in the cinema! Elisabeth Lutyens proved particularly adept at suggesting the macabre and the psychotic! Her horror commissions included The Psychopath, Theatre Of Death, Paranoiac, The Earth Dies Screaming, Dr Terror's House Of Horrors and The Skull. For The Skull genre veterans Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee discover that the skull of the Marquis De Sade has the power to induce people to murder! As can be surmised from this dynamic suite, Lutyens' progressive music is obviously driving the drama and presents a much more terrifying aspect than any old skull could muster, no matter who the previous resident might have been! Many film music aficionados have been angling for years for some of Elisabeth Lutyens' film music to be recorded and here their aspirations have been realised in regal fashion.

Richard Rodney Bennett recently commented that for him film music was a different animal to classical composition because of the strictures involved there not being sufficient time when it came to film to lavish the appropriate amount of thought required for significant invention and development. But nevertheless Bennett's film scores from Blind Date to Far From The Madding Crowd to Murder on The Orient Express - would appear to belie this theory, his film music always being of the utmost quality and alive with inspired creation and winning thematic material. This is especially true of his music for The Return Of The Soldier, Alan Bridges' film of a shell-shocked soldier who returns from the trenches of the Great War with selective amnesia, remembering his first love, but not his later marriage to another woman. A sterling cast included Alan Bates, Glenda Jackson and Julie Christie. Bennett approaches the subject in attractive yet anguished mode, the soulful music never less than modernistic in idiom yet easily communicating an underlying romanticism, and is possibly representative of the very pinnacle of achievement in British film music composition.

This is an extraordinary album but the choice of challenging selections by Gerhard and Lutyens, the Britten title being obviously an obscure (but welcome and important) inclusion, and given that The Return Of The Soldier has been a woefully neglected, if not forgotten film - may not necessarily endear this disc to every film music buff. Admittedly its target audience is most probably classical, given the credentials of the composers concerned, but those interested in film music should not undervalue the importance or the arresting nature of the scores recorded here. This is especially so given the outstanding readings given by the BBC Symphony orchestra under Jac Van Steen and a superlatively detailed recording set in a generously broad acoustic.

The vision which resulted in the recording of these scores and the sheer tenacity probably required to mount the project - has to be loudly applauded. This is undoubtedly a five star album, bringing as it does four very rare and extremely choice examples of British film music into an accessible commercial arena, but the rating is accompanied by the proviso that not everyone will necessarily warm to all the complex and diverse music recorded here.

David Wishart

***** 5

Hubert Culot offers this view from a classical music perspective: -

Britten's score for Love from a Stranger was lost but has been expertly re-constructed by Colin Matthews working from Britten's sketches as well as from the original soundtrack. As might be expected, this is a fairly traditional film score, although there are many fine things in it, but really very little that might be described as vintage Britten. It is of course superbly done and the scoring for standard orchestral forces is quite assured. It may have been effective on the screen, although as usual (alas!) the edited score was heavily cut (some sections were bluntly omitted). It is good to be able to hear it in such a fine edition.

One would hardly think of Roberto Gerhard as a film composer; and, in fact, he composed only two such scores: Secret People (1952) and This Sporting Life (1963 directed by Lindsay Anderson), heard here in David Matthews' edition. This substantial score's fate is not uncommon in film music's history. Anderson hardly knew any of Gerhard's music before asking him to compose the score for his film. He was eventually somewhat disappointed by what turned out to be a rather modern score, probably better suited to a science fiction movie than to a working class drama set in Yorkshire. The main title [track 7] is a good example of what may have caused dismay to Anderson. This is Gerhard at his best, hard-edged, ominously menacing, sparse and dissonant. In fact, if you know any of his late major works (The Plague, the Third and Fourth Symphonies, and the superb Concerto for Orchestra), you will have a fair idea of what his score for This Sporting Life sounds like. I do not know how the music fits or not with the screenplay; but one thing I am completely sure of is that this score is Gerhard at his best. It is thus not surprising that he re-worked some of the material in his orchestral work Epithalamion of 1966.

Lutyens, as Gerhard in his mature works, heavily relied on serial techniques in her concert works, composed in a fairly advanced idiom which more than once estranged her from audiences and critics as well. Such serial music was nevertheless put to good use in many Hammer 'B movies', in much the same way as in some film scores by Frankel, Williamson and Searle. Just think of how impressive and effective the main title of The Abominable Snowman by Searle may still sound, as pure music. Lutyens' score for The Skull has all the ingredients that are generally associated with horror films of the 1960s: eerie string chords, shrieking woodwinds, ominous brass, pounding and/or rattling percussion, the whole coloured by 'Gothic' organ chords, to great effect.

Gerhard's and Lutyens' uncompromising scores perfectly illustrate one of the paradoxes of modern music. When heard in the context of a film, such an advanced idiom is easily taken in by audiences that otherwise would have been frankly hostile in the concert hall. The main title of Jerry Goldsmith's fine score for The Planet of the Apes is another telling piece of evidence of this paradoxical state of affairs.

Richard Rodney Bennett's film scores are generally much better known for their lyricism, nostalgia and accessibility, although his substantial score for The Return of the Soldier is a more serious affair. It is a very fine score, stylistically half-way between the serial Bennett and the more consonant Bennett - if I can put it like that. Many of the cues recorded here are rather more astringent than in some more popular film scores by this gifted and versatile composer. Other cues are in Bennett's more popular vein. The whole however is a most welcome addition to his discography; and is a perfect complement to the earlier Chandos release (CHAN 9867). Incidentally, the last track is conducted by Martyn Brabbins.

I have never seen any of these films, so I cannot comment on how the music relates or not to the screenplays and the finished films. However these scores stand remarkably well on their purely musical merits and repay repeated hearings, which I think says much for their intrinsic musical qualities.

This is a most desirable release, not only for film buffs, but also for those who want to explore some byways of British contemporary music represented here by Gerhard and Lutyens.

Hubert Culot

**** 4

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