June 2006 Film Music CD Reviews

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

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The Film Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams Volume 3  
Music composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams
Performed by the BBC Philhamonic & the Ladies of Manchester Chamber Choir
Conducted by Rumon Gamba
  Available on Chandos (CHAN 10368)
Running Time: 66:37
Amazon UK   Amazon US

See also:

  • Vaughan Williams: Symphony No.6 / Film Music
  • VThe Film Music of Vaughan Williams Volume 1
  • The Film Music of Vaughan Williams Volume 2
  • Following volumes 1 & 2, which featured such famous scores as Scott of the Antarctic and The 49th Parallel, Volume 3 of the complete Vaughan Williams’ film music has rather less familiar fare to offer. A version of the nine-part (seven track) suite from The Story of a Flemish Farm did appear on a Marco Polo album of Vaughan Williams’ film music in June 1995 with Andrew Penny conducting the RTE Concert Orchestra. Vintage recordings of music from the film also appeared, along with themes from the second score featured on the current disc, The Loves of Joanna Godden on a GEM album released in 2002. That disc also featured The 49th Parallel, Scott of the Antarctic, Coastal Command and Adrian Boult’s premiere recording of VW’s 6th Symphony.

    The Flemish Farm is a now almost forgotten WWII adventure dated from 1943. At the time the production was sufficiently notable for the music to be performed by the LSO under Muir Mathieson. The full score no longer exists, and has not been reconstructed for this release. Rather the recording uses the suite the composer himself prepared and conducted in 1945. Highlights include the patriotic opening, ‘The Flag Flutters in the Wind’, the resolute and noble ‘The Major Goes to Face his Fate’ and the rousing finale ‘The Wanderings of the Flag’. ‘Dawn in the Old Barn – The Parting of the Lovers’ is a touching love scene, while ‘The Dead Man’s Kit’ features a most moving solo violin theme, heroic fanfare and pastoral idyll. In total it is a notable if largely understated, even lugubrious score. There are few bold gestures to immediately capture the attention, but as always with Vaughan Williams the music is impeccably crafted.

    In November 2000 when I reviewed the album Vaughan Williams: Symphony No.6 / Film Music I wrote:

    “The album ends with an eight-minute suite from the almost forgotten 1947 film, The Loves of Joanna Godden. This was a drama of life on Romney Marsh at the beginning of the century and the music is both pastoral and dramatic, and also given the necessity of compiling highlights into a short suite, somewhat disconnected. It is still a treat for VW fans to hear this hitherto very rare music, though it would be nice if someone would arrange a longer suite from this score.”

    Well, now someone has. That someone is Stephen Hogger, and he has crafted a new fifteen minute work that expands on the ten selections used in the 1948 suite and receives its premiere recording on this album. The result is much more cohesive and satisfying. The music contains suggestions of VW’s Symphony No.6, which he was finishing at the same time as composing this score, and also clear parallels with his music for Scott of the Antarctic (1948), with cold strings and ethereal wordless female chorus. Romney Marsh may not be the deep frozen South, but it can get pretty bleak in winter…

    There is a sombre folk-like quality to much of the writing, the music in the suite focusing on the landscape aspects of the drama to the extent that, as Michael Kennedy comments in his booklet notes, the selections do not sound episodic, ‘but more like a tone-poem’. Indeed, in the stark, brooding nature of much of the suite one can even hear an English echo of Sibelius’ forbidding landscapes. Perhaps the fact that VW completed the score before the film was finished, and therefore clearly wasn’t writing to picture, accounts for the particularly folk-impressionistic feel to the music. The tender pastoral-romantic closing theme is especially lovely and as a whole this is the strongest music on this disc and the best reason for purchasing it.

    Bitter Springs, a highly rated adventure about a trek through the Australian Outback, could not have been more different, and was a marked departure for Ealing studios. The film starred Tommy Trinder and ‘Chips’ Raffety (who was also in The Loves of Joanna Godden), with music again performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra under the baton of Ernest Irving. In this case though Irving did rather more than conduct. In fact the entire score was arranged, orchestrated and in some instances composed by Irving based upon 38 bars of thematic material supplied by VW. The virtually 26 minute suite, edited again by Stephen Hogger and presented here in its premiere recording, contains 16 cues, of which the following are based on VW’s music: ‘Main Titles and Opening Music’, ‘Rocks’, ‘First Desert’, ‘Waterhole’, ‘End of the Trek’, ‘Housewarming’, ‘Hunters’ and ‘Round Up’. Which is to say almost two thirds of the music. There is certainly a characteristic VW feel to these cues, which are grouped largely at the beginning of the film, with ‘Housewarming’ and ‘Hunters’ in the middle, Irving handling the third act apart from the finale entirely himself. In the main he does not attempt to pastiche VW in his own compositions, and his portrait of ‘Kangeroos’ is delightful. Even so, it does seem strange that four of the last five tracks on an album entitled The Film Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams Volume 3 should be by someone else entirely. The music that is based on VW’s material is dependable, but not especially memorable or sufficiently striking to make this suite worth seeking out for itself by other than VW completists.

    Of the three scores represented on this disc no one could seriously argue they were among Vaughan Williams finest music, or even his best film music. The Story of a Flemish Farm contains much that is good, especially the electrifying finale, but could never be described as essential Vaughan Williams. Bitter Springs is an enjoyable listen, but is something of a barrel-scraping exercise in so far as VW only contributed 38 bars of material to the project. Which leaves The Loves of Joanna Godden as the highlight of the album. Yet even this is hardly vital, but something akin to a tone poem which might one day find a better home as a filler on a disc with the sixth or seventh symphonies. This is Vaughan Williams, the finest English classical composer of the last century, and therefore far from negligible, but I could not seriously recommend anyone purchasing this disc without first acquiring the two previous volumes in the series.

    Gary Dalkin

    Rating: 3

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