Once Upon A Time… is the latest addition to Silva Screen's very useful Essential Film Music Collection, and follows volumes devoted to Miklós Rózsa, Jerome Moross, Maurice Jarre and others. Ennio Morricone is one of the most anthologised film composers ever, so compared with the sets cited above this particular release has a lot of competition. As usual the selections are new recordings rather than original soundtracks, and are delivered with the customary rich and lavish Silva Screen sound courtesy of The City of Prague Philharmonic and Crouch End Festival Chorus.
Morricone has been a massively prolific composer with over 300 film and television scores to his credit. He is best known for two things: his collaborations with director Sergio Leone, from which the current set takes its title, and for his lushly romantic themes for any number of diverse films. Naturally enough Once Upon A Time… concentrates on those aspects of the composer's music, presenting versions of all Morricone's most famous melodies. As such it is the perfect introduction to his music for the non-fanatic who does not insist recordings adhere to the original recording in every last detail. It is also a fine set for the more general Morricone fan who will have the originals of some of this music, but almost certainly far from all. Of course the serious Morricone devotee will already have all the original soundtracks…
The set is clearly divided in two. The first CD contains music almost entirely from Westerns, mostly of the spaghetti sort, many directed by Leone. The only exception is the theme from Cinema Paradiso, which really does belong on the second CD, a programme of miscellaneous themes, mostly romantic, including a five movement suite from The Mission. The second disc is more successful than the first for the simple reason that Morricone's Western music – especially the Dollars Trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly) – is so intimately associated not just with its melodies but with the highly original and idiosyncratic orchestrations of the original soundtracks that any new version inevitably sounds "wrong" even to non-purist ears. Which is not to say that the versions of those themes as presented here are "bad" – they are not, being often very spirited and polished – but merely not being the originals proves a major hurdle to overcome. For those who can there is much to enjoy here, particularly the wonderful 'The Harvest' cue from the more conventional Days of Heaven. Generally though, for reworked versions of this music, rather than the originals, one can not currently surpass the utterly superb recent release, Yo Yo Ma Plays Ennio Morricone.
Conversely, the second CD really is something of a treat. Here are fine versions of many of Morricone's most sublime inventions. From a rousing take on the main theme from The Untouchables onwards the disc rarely puts a foot wrong. The theme from the little seen The Red Tent is a captivating soprano melody in the tradition of the composer's work on Once Upon A Time in the West – and soloist Charlotte Kinder acquits herself with flying colours (as indeed she does on Exorcist II and the version of 'The Ecstasy of Gold' from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly on the first disc). At the other extreme the theme from The Thing retains all the chilling power of the unique original, and 'Chi Mai' recaptures the startling combination of luxurious strings and syndrums of the 1980's hit. In The Line of Fire also comes up trumps with an iconic modern action thriller theme from the top draw.
Inevitably the album ends with the five part suite from Morricone's most celebrated score of (comparatively) recent times, The Mission. Recorded numerous times, the versions here of the now classic themes are among the best available, distilling the essence of the score into 13 beautiful minutes.
With two discs for the price of one Silva Screen have another winner with a solid addition to any collection.