Gladiator – Suite
Sinfonia concertante for violin, cello and orchestra, Op.29
Sinfonietta, Op.5

Philippe Graffin (violin) & Raphael Wallfisch (cello)

BBC Concert Orchestra
Barry Wordsworth

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 1 May, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

All of these composers are famous for their music for the ‘silver screen’; often, the music is better known than the composer is! Miklós Rózsa wrote scores for such films as “The Jungle Book” (1942) and “Ben-Hur” (1959) and Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s film credits include “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938) and “The Sea Hawk” (1940).

The music from Hans Zimmer’s score for “Gladiator” (2000) brought two thoughts to mind: how very similar it is to the (superior) music of Gustav Holst’s ‘Mars’ (from The Planets); and how functional the music is, such that without the pictures it seemed to make little sense. Also, considering that this was billed as a ‘suite’ of music, comprising ‘The Barbarian Horde’, ‘The Battle’, ‘Earth’ and then, again, ‘The Barbarian Horde’, it was surprising that the whole was over in a little under five minutes. ‘The Barbarian Horde’ and ‘Battle’ sections were more successful because they rely less on the visual whereas ‘Earth’ conveyed very little.

Whether Zimmer can compose abstract works remains unknown, but, this is what Rózsa and Korngold attempted to do, with a lot of success. Rózsa ‘double concerto’ was produced during the 1960s, at the behest of cellist Gregor Piatigorsky and the violinist Jascha Heifetz. It is music that highlights the soloists’ skills in interplay and range. It was, therefore, a shame that when these (often-delicate) phases of the music were reached the orchestra made it difficult to hear the soloists. This had the added effect of making a lot of what was heard bland. The first movement ended with some lacerating moments that seemed to speak the music’s intentions, but this was too little too late. The second movement, a romantic-sounding set of Variations on a Theme first heard on the cello, was instantly forgettable. The finale, marked Allegro con brio, did not, initially, sound at all vigorous; a distinct lack of momentum, which, fortunately, was rescued about halfway through when Barry Wordsworth got the orchestra into belated action so that one could detect the influence of Shostakovich.

Korngold’s confident Sinfonietta was written when he was 15, and was praised by Sibelius. The orchestra did some justice to the music: the dreamlike slow movement was truly that, with captivating contributions from cor anglais and harps. Similarly, sweet sounds were produced in the opening movement by the celesta while the brass produced uplifting fanfares towards the close, a feature common with Korngold’s later movie music. The finale spoke anticipated more of the film scores and so it was all too predictable, thus robbing this finale of the thrill that it should have. One reason for this, and with problems elsewhere, was the orchestra’s lack of control with dynamics.

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