December 1999 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? National Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the composer   VARÈSE SARABANDE VSD 5800

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When Alex North first viewed Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? he told director Mike Nichols the searing, dialogue-driven interior drama didn't need any music. But Nichols, making his film directorial debut, pushed North to reconsider, and the result was one of the veteran composer's most memorable scores. Rather than underscoring what is readily obvious on the screen and in Edward Albee's biting story of the go-for-the-jugular, no-holds barred relationship between George and Martha (Richard Burton & Elizabeth Taylor) -- which North might easily have done with a jazz-based score reminiscent, perhaps, of his "Streetcar Named Desire" or "The Sound and Fury" -- North wrote music that instead brought out a hidden, but vitally intrinsic element in the film: George and Martha's deeply dependent love for one another. North accomplishes this with a soft, quasi-baroque score featuring a 9-note main theme that must count among the loveliest he wrote in his40-year career.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf came at a transitional point for North in 1966 -- at the end of his run of traditional spectaculars that had included "Spartacus," "Cleopatra" and "The Agony and the Ecstasy." and just before his more eclectic, almost experimental scores that began with his infamously junked score for "2001: A Space Odyssey." "Virginia Woolf," by contrast, is both intimate and melodic. From the impressionistic strings and winds that open the picture, to the heart-rending offering of the main theme in duos for various strings heard in the closing "Sunday, Tomorrow - All Day," this is a North we don't often hear, and at the height of his powers.

The score was nominated for an Academy Award, as was the music that same year for The Sand Pebbles by a young Jerry Goldsmith (both lost -- to John Barry's "Born Free"). The professional and personal friendship that developed between North and Goldsmith was to last another 25 years, until North's death in 1991. For Goldsmith, re-recording some of his friend and mentor's greatest works has been a personal goal first realized with the release earlier this decade of the original, never-before heard, "2001" score and, more recently, four other North works -- Viva Zapata, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Agony and the Ecstasy and this. All are labors of love, and we are indebted to Goldsmith, as well as Varese Sarabande.

That said, a caveat remains to be noted -- simply, this latest "Virginia Woolf" lacks the warmth with which North infused the original, and which is notably lacking in the solid, but sterile, reading Goldsmith elicits from London's National Philharmonic. Listen, too, to how differently each utilizes the harpsichord in the Act II prologue music: North's makes a bold statement, while Goldsmith restricts his to mere furtive comments. Still, it's good to have the score on CD, and Goldsmith gives us more of North's music than was contained on the original LP.


John Huether


John Huether

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