Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Great Classic Film Music, Philharmonic Promenade Orchestra, Iain Sutherland

Like most everyone I grew up watching a lot of movies and absorbing the movie soundtracks. Because I was part of the first TV generation I was exposed to a lot more old movies (on TV) than might have been the case for the radio-phonograph folks coming up somewhat earlier. Classical music has always had a huge influence on the music of the most classic scores of course and there is a rather handy summing up of such things on a CD that has come out recently, namely Great Classic Film Music (SOMNI Recordings Ariadne 5006), as performed (mostly live) by the Philharmonic Promenade Orchestra (England) conducted by Iain Sutherland--from recordings made between 1983 and 1986.

The selection covers the icons of the last century, soundtrack-wise, and a few that one might not be as familiar with, at ;least here in the States. So there are some of John Williams' Star Wars I musical themes and his Main Title music from E.T. (I.e.,  Williams takes on Holst), Max Steiner's schlocky classic "Tara's Theme" from Gone with the Wind (as a kid I knew it as the theme for the "Million Dollar Movie" TV feature every night on indie NYC TV), and a bunch of others, most of which I'll mention as we go along.

From the beginning of the "talkie" era (and at times for the more elaborate silent film presentations) the symphony orchestra was more or less a must for any soundtrack that wanted to aspire to blockbuster status. The orchestra represented "class," "ideal expression of narrative elements" and perhaps above all was considered universally the fullest means to express emotional content that we then knew musically. We may still feel the same way--but not all ages or current genres however.

To fit the soundtracks with the musical scene we need to remember that mainstream "everyman" classical popularity was by then firmly in the hands of the most popular Romantics--so Tchaikovsky for example was a kind of bellwether, but others too of course. And the soundtrack composers coming out of Europe into Hollywood or at any rate with Euro-centric training if not residence, they were fully steeped as orchestral composers in the Beethoven-and-after extravaganza style possibilities. And so then the stock in trade necessarily was Romantic--for better or worse. Korngold was one of the more brilliant refugees from Europe in WWII and his music was always much more than stock Romantic tropes--so you can hear that in the March from the Adventures of Robin Hood and the Prelude from Escape Me Never.

The romance of the Romantic comes to the fore especially in "Tara's Theme" and the Love Theme from Love Story. These are themes virtually everyone has known and are admittedly some of the very more memorable items from a huge production of soundtrack footage over the years.

One must note that something like Jerome Moross's Prelude from The Big Country gives us something else--a post-Copland Americana that is attractive and evocative and very well suited to the subject matter of the film. So too William Walton's various spots sound like him and not otherwise, as one might say too about Khachaturian. An innovatively rousing Prokofiev on his "Battle on the Ice" from Alexander Nevsky breaks all molds, though this performance is a little hectic compared to some classic ones I am used to hearing.

Beyond that among other things there is decent arrangement by the conductor Sutherland of Williams' Close Encounters that well represents the ground of blockbuster Scifi soundtrack trends from the close of the period the recording was made.

Movie buffs will find this nice to have and hear. Can we still respond to "Tara's Theme" the way my parents might have? Probably not but no anthology of popular film scoring would be complete without it. It all raises the issue too of how a period expects or likes to hear some things that in other ages are not assumed or perhaps even completely understood.

If music from more atmospheric soundtracks like Jaws and Psycho are missing, the emphasis on the lyric Romantic would make them seem a little jarring I suppose, given the implied premise that the program satisfies audiences looking for the tuneful, for melodic sublimity?

The performances are quite serviceable and the selections are well paced. It might not be something I would be looking out for right now if I was not reviewing it  but then it is a reliably good collection if you have or think you have the need for it.

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