This is an important album in the firmament of film music: the original soundtrack of the most famous Western ever (perhaps vying with High Noon - which centres rather around a song than this score, which has some very fine music). Elmer Bernstein's music, or more accurately the big theme, has been recorded and presented in concert many times. The complete music, of which I would guess pretty well every substantial segment has been presented here, was, astoundingly, never issued on LP. Of course there may have been the odd pirate LP but certainly nothing commercial or approved. The closest you get to a contemporary commercial release is the LP of The Return of the Magnificent Seven which contains much of the original score in a (then) freshly recorded version.
The main theme jumps and kicks like a stallion. If age has roughened the edges of the sound it has not robbed it of its visceral charge. The high mountains, desert plains, dusty streets are all here - together with an geographically asynchronous dash of Copland - after all this is Mexico not Montana or Texas or Appalachia. Never mind - Copland did write several devastatingly effective Latino pieces - El Salon Mexico being the best known and the best. Extensive use is made of the famous theme both in direct quotation and as a basis for various variations. Galloping barking figures stride through the 23 tracks contrasted with Mexican-style fiestas, honky-tonk saloon pianos ('Vin's Luck') and the occasional romantic guitar serenades.
The stylistic cross-references include Ponce (Concierto del Sur and his Violin Concerto), Joaqin Rodrigo, Copland (of course), Piston, Randall Thompson and Manuel de Falla ('Toro'). The drum toccata in 'Fiesta' sounds as if it escaped from everyone's cliché of 'darkest Africa'. 'Worst Shot' uses metal drums in something which sounds very much like a Caribbean steel drum band. Later tracks gallop and storm and that blessedly famous theme is never far away, while the Mexican romance element finally slumbers quietly into a warm twilight elegy ('Finale').
On the negative side Bernstein's inspiration, while often burning strongly, sometimes coasts along repetitively at low voltage ('Calvera Killed', for example). Attention is not held consistently – a 55 minute running time would have been about ideal - and the trick may be to avoid playing the album all in one go.
When this score was first released on RYKO RCD 10741 in 1998 there were notes by Jeff Bond and a couple of paragraphs from Elmer's daughter Emilie (since 1990 the orchestrator for his film scores). That release also included great stills from the film, location shots and a rather crude looking poster copyrighted 1980, presumably from a re-release of the film. The new Varèse issue has striking, almost sepia tone stills and a useful essay by Jerry McCulley.
The sound is grainy – on the Ryko release Emilie referred to the original soundtrack being recorded 'without the benefits of modern day recording techniques'. nevertheless I can recommend this to the aficionado of Western scores, enthusiasts for the film itself and for Brynner mavens and also for collectors of Bernstein's scores.
A very significant disc, generous in timing and well presented.
Editor's note: The above is a revised, updated version of a review which originally appeared on FMOTW in December 1998. The audio is identical between the Ryko and Varèse issues. Only the packaging is different.