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December 2005 Film Music CD Reviews

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

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The Chronicles of Narnia: The Television Music of Geoffrey Burgon  
Music composed and conducted by Geoffrey Burgon
Plus music from other TV series: Brideshead Revisited; Testament of Youth, Bleak House, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Performed by The Philharmonia Orchestra; Soprano: Lesley Garrett
  Available on Silva Screen (SILCD-1199)
Running Time: 58:35
Amazon UK   Amazon US

Film music fans eager for Harry Gregson-Williams’ upcoming score for the mega-budget The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe should beware this re-issue of Silva Screen’s 1992 compilation of Geoffrey Burgon’s music for television. (Titled on initial release Brideshead Revisited: The Television Music of Geoffrey Burgon – FILMCD 723.) While Burgon’s music is excellent, it is a long way from what we can expect from the composer of Kingdom of Heaven and Chicken Run, and filled with far more variety – the Narnia selections making up only a quarter of the album.

Never really a composer of feature films (though his feature credits include Robin Hood and The Dogs of War), Geoffrey Burgon is one of the most established voices in score composition for British TV miniseries, his most recent effort being a fine score for the BBC adaptation of John Mortimer’s The Forsyte Saga. This re-issued CD includes specially-recorded suites from five scores by Burgon, including such diverse titles as Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, John LeCarre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Vera Britten’s Testament of Youth and of course C S Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.

The re-issue features the Narnia score first, appropriately enough since an association with C S Lewis is a more likely selling card in 2005 than Evelyn Waugh. Burgon scored one of the BBC’s best shoestring adaptations with a small ensemble including strings, trumpet, horn, clarinet, flute, bassoon, timpani and percussion. The majestic ‘Aslan’s Theme’ opens the seven-part suite with a horn solo over tremolo harmonising strings, followed by a flute and clarinet interlude before the horn returns to round out the noble theme. Horn and trumpet fanfares are followed by clarinet and flute runs for ‘The Great Battle’ with urgent string and percussion support, building up to a climactic reprisal of Aslan’s theme. The advantage of the small ensemble here is a greater appreciation of individual instrument roles in the writing, though one wishes for a little more orchestral weight in a piece of such dramatic importance.

More successful is the intimate ‘Mr Tumnus’ Tune’, which begins as a seductive flute melody for the treacherous fawn with pizzicato string support. A trumpet theme leads the scherzando ‘The Storm at Sea’, though Burgon’s repetitive use of rhythm and melody in this cue feels a little weak when compared to similar swashbuckling efforts from Korngold or even John Debney in seafaring scores. (Though admittedly both those composers had the benefit of a much larger ensemble to knock the listener senseless with.) ‘Aslan Sacrificed’ musically references Lewis’ allegory of Aslan for Christ with elegant (credited) interpolations from Bach’s B Minor Mass. ‘Journey to Harfang’ and the opening of ‘Farewell to Narnia’ again reference Burgon’s more strident writing. The full ensemble finale to ‘Farewell to Narnia’ is an appropriate end to the short suite, and leaves one wishing for a more extended release of music from the series.

For the autobiographical story of life in World War Two, Testament of Youth, Burgon’s score is considerably more urgent, and based solely on a string orchestra. Violas duel over driving string rhythms in ‘Testament of War’. A lighter, more pastoral rendition of the same material opens ‘Intimations of Wars’, though as the title indicates, things get darker by the end of the cue with a reprise of the main title material. ‘Elegy’ is a quintessentially British string dirge, reminiscent of William Walton at times. Together with the regal ‘Finale’, the selections from this score make for the strongest suite on the album.

The suite from Bleak House features a more complete ensemble than the other suites. Cornet and oboe soloists lead the orchestra through the theme for Bleak House, a theme neither bleak nor joyful but somewhere in between. ‘Streets of London’ captures that same ambiguity – the woodwind and cornet solos respectively imbue the piece with a sense of beauty and solitude. ‘Dedlock vs Boythorn’ is a sprightly dance, cornet and horn duelling over a sawing string rhythm familiar from the work of Rachel Portman. ‘Lady Dedlock’s Quest’ is a darker piece for low strings, bassoon and bass clarinet, the variation of instruments maintaining interest. The theme carried in the trumpet in ‘Finale’ captures something of the magic of ‘Aslan’s Theme’, showcasing Burgon’s gift for memorable melody when the score calls for it.

Probably the least developed suite on the album is from the John LeCarre adaptation Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The theme is probably the least memorable of those presented on this album, though there’s a sense both of scale and intimacy in the orchestration that communicates that this is a story about anonymous people who shape the fates of nations. Less appropriate is the end title music. Given the dry wit of Alec Guiness’ performance as LeCarre’s Smiley, ‘Nunc Dimitis’ feels overbearing, featuring a female soprano performance of the lyrics ‘Lord let your servant depart in peace’. Heavy stuff indeed.

Originally, this album’s showpiece was the suite from Brideshead Revisited, so it is no surprise that that score’s suite is longer than most others. The pseudo-classical main theme will be familiar to anyone who has wandered past a television playing the famous miniseries adaptation on one of its many reruns over the last twenty years. I like the slower variation of it in ‘Farewell to Brideshead’ more than the familiar ‘Main Title’ arrangement. The rest of the suite is made up some of the score’s best setpieces - ‘Julia’s Theme’ and ‘Fading Light’ are moving pieces dominantly written for strings, ‘The Hunt’ a melodic scherzo that lingers in the mind afterwards.

Most film score collectors will have never owned an album of music by Geoffrey Burgon, and for those that appreciate orchestral film music with a smaller scale ensemble, this release comes highly recommended. Burgon conducts and re-arranges his own scores with The Philharmonia Orchestra, a stronger ensemble than Silva’s usual go-to orchestra, the City of Prague Philharmonic. The liner notes are also an impressive explanation of the dramatic function and musical devices of each cue.

Those who already have Silva’s Brideshead Revisited compilation need not worry – the differences in the two releases amount to a re-ordered tracklisting. Therein of course lies the missed opportunity of a release with this title – Burgon’s Narnia material is good enough to merit a more extended release with a larger ensemble performing. If the wave of enthusiasm surrounding all-things-Narnia as a new film of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe approaches proves insufficient to prompts a longer release of Burgon’s score for the series, what hope do we have that such excellent material will ever occupy collectors’ shelves?

Michael McLennan


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