British Film Music

0 of 5 stars

Love from a Stranger
This Sporting Life
The Skull
Richard Rodney Bennett
The Return of the Soldier

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jac van Steen

All recorded in BBC Studio One, Maida Vale, London – Love from a Stranger in March 1999, the other scores in October 2002. For technical reasons, one track of The Return of the Soldier was recorded in November 2002 and conducted by Martyn Brabbins

Reviewed by: Steve Lomas

Reviewed: July 2004
CD No: NMC D073
Duration: 64 minutes

Ever since the earliest days of cinema, composers from the classical tradition have been attracted to the medium of film music. The most artistically successful director/composer partnerships (from Eisenstein/Prokofiev to Greenaway/Nyman) have been those where there has been a spirit of collaboration between the two. Unfortunately the reality has often been otherwise and many composers have had their fingers badly burned in the process, with scores being chopped up, rearranged or rejected wholesale. As a result, composers have tended to regard film scoring as a source of income and then as a backwater to be got out of as soon as their concert work started to pay.

Of the composers represented here, that certainly applies to Britten and Gerhard; and also to Lutyens even though her concert work rarely ever paid for itself or at any rate didn’t match the famous drink bills! Richard Rodney Bennett has of course kept his hand in with film and television music throughout his prolific career and is one of the great ‘pros’ in the field.

The word ‘prolific’ crops up often regarding at least three of the four composers featured on this CD, proponents of what Nicholas Maw calls the “tombola” approach to composition (“I can only achieve quality through quantity,” Lutyens once said) and are certainly better suited to the job of writing film music than slow, fastidious composers: it is hard to foresee Oliver Knussen or George Benjamin getting too many film commissions.

And therein lies a problem. It is quite unlikely that any of these four composers intended their work presented here to be heard away from its context (only Britten’s score is published) and there can be little doubt that the specific gravity of these scores is considerably (and intentionally) lower than the same composers’ concert music. Whilst it is good to have this material available, it cannot be said that the listening experience is very compelling.

Britten’s music for the 1937 film “Love from a Stranger” is his only score for the big screen; all of his other work in this field having been written for the curious world of the documentary short, which tended to concern such earth-shattering subjects as gas-meter reading and building insurance. The film itself long ago dropped off the radar and its only screenings in latter times are likely to have been the occasional airing in the excellent little cinema on Aldeburgh High Street. Britten’s score – efficiently reconstructed by Colin Matthews – is in the light, breezy and somewhat anonymous style of such works as the ‘lost’ Paul Bunyan overture (itself also scored by Matthews). The score’s most characteristic idea is the violin/saxophone duet in the ‘Love Music’. Britten vowed never again to write for the cinema after the director’s treatment of his score, although one of several mouth-watering projects lined up at the time of his death in 1976 was to provide the music for a film of “The Tempest” with Gielgud as Prospero and set in Bali.

For his ‘kitchen sink’ drama “This Sporting Life”, director Lindsay Anderson commissioned a score from Roberto Gerhard because of a professed aversion to the sound of “the average British ‘quality’ film score” as purveyed by the likes of Rawsthorne and Arnold. He certainly got what he asked for with Gerhard’s score (although that didn’t stop him from drastically reassembling it) – bleak and starkly atonal, explosive outbursts contrasting with intense slow string writing sometimes tinged with the strange ‘electronic’ timbre of an accordion. It has its longeurs away from the screen but also passages where the mysterious power of Gerhard’s idiom shines through.

Elizabeth Lutyens’s score for “The Skull” (one of a number of films she scored which tend to be classed as ‘Hammer Horror’ although as Mark Doran points out in his well-informed booklet-note it was a production of the rival company Amicus) is genuine ‘scary film’ music – creepy organ chords, brooding bass clarinets, sudden brass and percussion outbursts and all. Although there is some unusual orchestral coloration and Bayan Northcott has assembled the cues into something approaching a suite, this is pretty thin stuff. NMC has served Lutyens’s cause far better with its indispensable disc devoted to her chamber and vocal works [NMC D011].

Lutyens was a lifelong friend and mentor of Richard Rodney Bennett (who if I recall correctly supplied the electronic music component of her curious opera “Time Off? Not a Ghost of a Chance!”). Finally, with his music for the 1982 film “The Return of the Soldier”, the disc takes off. Bennett has produced an effective score which is varied and well paced enough to stand up to being heard on its own. The overall tone, in keeping with the film based on Rebecca West’s novel, is a melancholy brooding occasionally brightened up by a lovely lilting tune, like sunshine breaking through dark cloud.

Not one of NMC’s essential recordings then, unlike those linked to below, although the standards are typically exceptionally high. The BBCSO has little to rise to and the Dutch conductor Jac Van Steen proves to be a safe pair of hands (along with Martyn Brabbins who conducted the final movement of the Bennett at a separate session “for technical reasons”). I hope Jac van Steen has something meatier to work with next time. The recorded sound is variable and the Gerhard is marred by a slight electronic hum.

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