John Morgan and William Stromberg's Marco Polo classic film scores series seems to have been transferred to the recording company's low-cost cousin, Naxos. This is a mixed blessing. On the plus side the series comes within the reach and interest of a larger budget-conscious audience but on the other hand production values suffer. The previous sumptuous Marco Polo booklets found space for numerous stills from the films and complete track-by-track analyses. These are missing from the standard Naxos eight-page booklet; moreover the inclusion of the text in German cuts down the English notes to only 2 + pages. Admittedly Bill Whittaker's background notes to the production of the film are illuminating (although they omit to mention that this Steiner score was Oscar-nominated) but since the film is so rarely seen, especially here in the United Kingdom, complete track analyses are much needed to explain tracks entitled, for instance, 'Comet's Return' (actually the appearance of a comet marked the birth and death of Mark Twain), 'Darn Coat Tails' and 'Oxford' (the film charts the career of one of America's foremost humorous writers from a Mississippi riverboat man to becoming an honorary fellow of Oxford University).
Max Steiner (1888-1971) was one the most prolific and respected composers of Hollywood's Golden Age. His career spanned almost 40 years covering an astonishing output of over 300 scores. He won three Academy Awards, for: The Informer (1935), Now Voyager (1942) and Since You Went Away (1944), and was nominated for a further 22, including the 100-minute score for The Adventures of Mark Twain, generally considered to be one of his masterworks. Often regarded as the man who invented film music, Steiner's film career was launched with The Bondman in 1929, while at RKO Pictures his 1933 milestone score for King Kong would lay down the ground rules for original film music that was to prove a vital ingredient in enhancing the action and moods of a picture. His The Lost Patrol music (1934) was the first dramatic music to be nominated for an Academy Award. In 1936 Steiner left RKO for Selznick International but soon transferred to Warner Bros where he wrote the vast majority of his scores. (Steiner was loaned back to Selznick, in 1939, to compose probably his best loved score – Gone With the Wind.)
The Adventures of Mark Twain was made in 1942 but Warner Bros executives conscious of World War II events overwhelming American audiences, chose to shelve the film before eventually releasing it in 1944. It starred Frederick March as Mark Twain supported by Alexis Smith and Donald Crisp. Halliwell's Film and Video Guide's two-star review states: "Conventional biopic, quite watchable and with unusual side turnings, but eventually lacking the zest of the subject."
Bill Whitaker astutely points out that although a Viennese émigré like that other celebrated Warner Bros. film music composer, Eric Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner had accumulated much experience working in American musical idioms through years of collaborating with composers like George Gershwin and Jerome Kern, so his scores The Adventures of Mark Twain, sounded like genuine Americana.
Bill Stromberg and the Moscow Symphony Orchestra and Chorus have by now got the full measure of the grand Late Romantic film scores from Hollywood's Golden Age and this new release is one of the best of the series in respect of performance and content (John Morgan's score restoration has provided 29 quality music cues spanning nearly 71 minutes).
The album opens with Max Steiner's glorious Warner Bros fanfare that filled us with so much anticipation as the Warner Bros shield trade mark filled the screen. (Why, oh why can't they still use it today?) How enjoyable it was to hear how economically Steiner modulated his fanfares into films' Main Title music. This score is no exception. The large orchestra sweeps into the Main Title music of natural grandeur associated with the Mississippi River. This is a typical highly effective, emotional Steiner/Warner Main Title opening peroration using pronounced bass ostinatos and proud, heroic brass. As the music calms, the titles music broadens to embrace a humorous and tender portrait of Mark Twain. The principal theme of the picture, associated with Twain, is derived from a riverman's cry. (This cry, 'Mark Twain!', means 'Safe Water!' and was adopted as the pen name of young Samuel Clemens. This cry was heard after Clemens' inexperience as a young river man had almost precipitated a bad accident - narrowly averted by his teacher's skill.)
Two of the most imposing cues are associated with Twain's experience as a boatman on the Mississippi: 'The River Pilot' and 'Riverboat in Fog'. Max Steiner was extremely adept at tonal painting action and atmosphere. The ebbing and flowing figures on woodwinds and strings, suggesting the churning of the water beneath the wheels of the paddle-steamer, and the swirling waters as the river becomes more and more turbulent are uncannily evoked in 'The River Pilot'; and the tense atmosphere as Twain struggles to pass a treacherous mid-river island in dense fog is also skilfully built up. The Moscow Orchestra are both brilliantly exciting and nicely subtle in these evocations.
Humour is essentially associated with Mark Twain and Steiner's portraits of braying donkeys, scampering squirrels and jumping frogs rival any by his contemporary Americana portrayer, and friend, Ferde Grofé. Typical Steiner sugar-coated tenderness abounds in cues associated with Twain's wife Livy (sweetness not to be sniffed at because (a) it is most sympathetic and attractive in its own right here and because (b) we should remember that film composers have to write over large music for the larger-than-life characters on the screen). Steiner uses familiar source music to underline and reinforce the reality of historical events – for example, 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic' in connection with the Civil War and the General Ulysses S. Grant episode.
So many tracks are little gems. The 'Theatre scene' for instance, that suggests the showcasing of feminine charms (Livy?) entrancingly blending neo-classical styles with dainty, fluttering, flirtatious figures. 'Gold Rush' (reminiscent of Steiner's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre score) mixes material that suggests a heroic frenetic rush and glittering allure, and 'Toy Shop' contains all the wonder of childhood with bells, xylophone and celeste tracing magical patterns before a mournful note of tragedy is struck.
Imposing music returns music for the closing scenes as Mark Twain walks over the hill into the 'sunrise of immortality'; the Twain theme momentarily turned into a carefree whistle and the music assuming a mystic shimmer of string tremolandos and tubular bells with the choir swelling the closing peroration.
A first-class performance of one of Steiner's outstanding, heart-warming Americana, Oscar-nominated scores.
* Max Steiner's score for The Adventures of Mark Twain is discussed on pages 40-42 in Christopher Palmer's celebrated book, The Composer in Hollywood (Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd, London ISBN 07145-2885-4; 1990)
Gary Dalkin adds:-
The SACD version of the album contains three separate versions of the recording. A 5.0 multi-channel mix in Direct Stream Digital sound, a stereo mix in DSD and the conventional CD standard stereo. While I can only agree with Ian's comments regarding this very important score, I can add that the surround version has both greater clarity of instrumental detail and atmosphere, but also seems to lack a little focus. It is very hard to pin-point and may even have much to do with the inferior quality of home theatre centre and rear speakers for music reproduction when contrasted with a main stereo hi-fi pair, even when all five speakers come from the same manufacturer, and indeed, the same range. Nevertheless, the music sounds fine in whatever version and devotees of classic film music can take the Steiner / Morgan / Stromberg signature as a mark of premium quality.