Spring 2005 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Marc Bridle
Managing Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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The Incredible Film Music Box  
Music composed and orchestrated by Various Artists
  Performed by The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, National Youth Jazz Orchestra, & Crouch End Festival Chorus
Conducted by Paul Bateman, James Fitzpatrick, & Nic Raine
  Available on Silva Screen SILCD1181
Running Time: 266:10 (Total)
(Disc 1): 61:36
(Disc 2): 68:47
(Disc 3): 65:40
(Disc 4): 70:07
Crotchet   Amazon UK   Amazon US

The Silva Screen label is probably best known by collectors for releases such as Warriors of the Silver Screen, Swashbucklers or The Mark of Zorro for Swordsmen of the Silver Screen, the Space and Beyond series, and the previous set, Cinema Century. With fourteen tracks per disc and well over four hours of music, the four-CD Incredible Film Music Box from Silva Screen covers an array of popular film scores from the past sixty years. From Golden age classics (Steiner's Gone with the Wind) to the Digital age (Giacchino's The Incredibles), pieces are arranged sequentially; tracks from mainstream and some not so mainstream films are selected for the 56-tracked album despite the "greatest box office hits" label.

Much like the Boston or Cincinnati Pops, the City of Prague Philharmonic is a symphony orchestra renowned for film score performances. They are normally decent in single subject or genre recordings, but this varied score set seems hastily put together. Although the orchestra is not always together or in tune, there isn't anything profoundly wrong with the album other than the fact that it appears... cheaply made.

From the recording end, the too loud or too quiet instrumental solos exploit or obscure the occasional slips in performance. e.g., the Uilleann pipes come off sounding like a honking goose in certain exposed phrases of the 'Braveheart: End Credits'. It also seems that there is always varying amounts of recording headroom, thus giving certain orchestral parts or entire sections a tinny, dull, or bombastic quality. Distortions and blaring bass are particularly prominent in Rózsa's 'Ben-Hur: Prelude', Zimmer and Gerard's Gladiator vocal, several tracks by John Williams, and The Incredibles. String runs are a bit sluggish and indistinct perhaps the fault of the orchestra while brass and percussion at times are abrasive or dampened by maladjusted EQ. (Two prime examples would be Bernstein's The Magnificent Seven and Jarre's 'Lawrence of Arabia: Overture'.) Since poor miking makes it difficult to discern lyrics, the Crouch End Festival Chorus is relegated to basic aural texturing in 'Rocky: Gonna Fly Now' or the Carmina Burana-esque charge from Horner's Glory.

Whether or not the mixing and recording are substandard, the casual listener may not be remotely bothered by anything regarding sound quality as long as the music is up to par... but it's not. Not really. Be it the fault of the arrangers, conductors, or the philharmonic, a number of performances feel generic or overly maudlin. And all throughout the set, it would seem as though if the orchestra only understands pianissimo or fortissimo in their repertoire of melodic expression. In simple melodies, finesse and subtle nuances are lacking when they are vital in portraying poignant moods. e.g., The famous track, 'As Time Goes By', from Casablanca, for example, imparts on listeners a lackluster piano solo accompanied by an equally staid orchestra. The main theme from Morricone's Cinema Paradiso is dealt with as though if there was something else infinitely better to perform. Instead of evoking a fuller, more impassioned experience fraught with nostalgia and yearning, tender layering is replaced by bland instrumentals with predictable sets of hairpin dynamics. The end result is the tragic recycling of a loving motif. The same is done to Barry's Midnight Cowboy, Dances with Wolves, Shore's Lord of the Rings '(Breaking of) the Fellowship', and Jarre's Witness. Loud and soft or mezzo piano for the cue's duration does not constitute an emotive experience although to some, it could be very exciting or saccharine in a plastic sense.

What is strange is that even compositions by the same composer are performed inconsistently. Of Herrmann's five selected pieces, two are performed admirably; the suite from Psycho is suitably dramatic and the Philharmonic's energy and enthusiasm match the garish flair of the 'Citizen Kane: Overture'. The Taxi Driver suite seems drunk on its own excessively stylized ambiance and the preludes suffer; North by Northwest has all of the intensity of an elephant plodding through a river of molasses and Vertigo spins leisurely into oblivion. Of the eight pieces by Williams, the theme from Schindler's List sags and drags with the pedestrian violin solo and is followed by a thoroughly nondescript 'Hymn to the Fallen' from Saving Private Ryan. Both cues seem to ask "what does it mean to be so anesthetized?" But technical or conducting issues notwithstanding, the remaining six are tackled with the same amount of gusto ardent fans of the films would have.

There are other pieces that demand much less of the orchestra or conductor to sound decent such as Williams's Superman, Indy Jones 'Raiders March', Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope, Steiner's The Searchers suite, and the (in)famous 'Colonel Bogey March' from The Bridge on the River Kwai. Unfortunately, they are few and far in between. Classical pieces such as Strauss's 'Also Sprach Zarathustra' and the Mascagni 'Intermezzo' (Raging Bull) make an appearance, but they more or less blend into the album background.

Memorable disasters include the attenuated 'My Heart Will Go On' from Titanic, messes known as the Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl suite, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and the grating, synthesized reading of Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy' from A Clockwork Orange. However, solo performances are oftentimes the counterbalance to the onslaught of noise: Roy Budd's flavorful electronic jazz title from Get Carter is aptly performed and arranged by Gareth Williams; the hip vigilante attitude exuded by Michael Caine's character is all there without ever going over the top. It is matched in technique by Mark Ayres's synthesized arrangement of Blade Runner's end titles. Why the love theme wasn't chosen is not a question after hearing Ayres's performance skillful and reminiscent of the dark, deep space milieu shaped by Vangelis. 'The Harry Lime Theme' from Carol Reed's The Third Man is delightfully smug and performed on the gleeful zither by soloist, Gertrud Huber. This amusing Anton Karas bit is a wonderful, unexpected gem in an album chock full of mainstream works.

For intellectuals, a mildly intriguing comparison can be made between Horner and Goldsmith in their approach to scoring for the Alien quadrilogy; the latter composer has the original film's end title and the former has the sequel's main title. (But for quality-sake, heed which orchestra is performing the pieces, who is conducting, and how the sound engineering is handled.) Although the Philharmonic is confused by ambient or delicate works à la Thomas Newman, it somehow manages to produce a moderately elegant, lighthearted interpretation of Kaczmarek's 'Impossible Opening' (Finding Neverland). The piano is perpetually scintillating and contrasts the hefty waltz while the wind section demonstrates remarkable buoyancy by never allowing the bass to overshadow it.

Lastly, Mancini's dazzling main title from Touch of Evil is performed by the National Youth Jazz Orchestra and conducted by Bill Ashton. Never mind that it conjures up Charlton Heston playing a Mexican, the Cuban rhythms are suave, sexy, hot as hell, and entice listeners to put it on a continuous loop. Yes. An alternative would be to watch the film's famed uncut opening sequence for an hour; the sassy flavor is thrilling, lingering, droll, and maddening in an oh so sumptuous way.

Why Conti's Thomas Crown Affair, Horner's The Mask of Zorro, Willow, Dun's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Kamen's Highlander, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, a cue from Davis's Matrix, or anything by Elfman, Arnold, or Doyle were excluded from the album is mind-boggling. Even more so is the eight to one outnumbering of Goldsmith by Williams for Silver age highlights. Nevertheless, specks meaning a single piece by each of Tiomkin, Rota, Nyman, a smattering of the Silver age greats, and Golden staples are sprinkled throughout the album. Well, all in chronological order. Casual listeners will appreciate the diversity of this album since it is primarily geared towards film score neophytes. On the flip side, audiophiles, score collectors, and aficionados may very well cringe or abscond from the album due to aforesaid performances and recording quality. For something solid, pick any single album that has been released by the US Pops orchestras or Silva Screen... just... not a set like this from the latter.

Tina Huang

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