BBC Concert Orchestra and Bramwell Tovey perform classic British film scores, celebrating Malcolm Arnold on the centenary of his birth

Doreen Carwithen
The Men of Sherwood Forest – Overture [arr. Philip Lane]

Hobson’s Choice – Concert Suite [arr. C. Palmer]

Alan Rawsthorne
The Cruel Sea – Main titles; Nocturne

Escape Me Never – Suite

Elisabeth Luytens
The Skull – excerpts

William Alwyn
Odd Man Out – Police chase; Nemesis

Vaughan Williams
The England of Elizabeth – Three Portraits [arr. Muir Matheson]

The Belles of St Trinian’s – Comedy suite [arr. C. Palmer]

BBC Concert Orchestra
Bramwell Tovey

Reviewed by: Brian Barford

Reviewed: 2 September, 2021
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Whilst Hollywood may be the acknowledged home of narrative film scoring Britain had a long and glorious history in the twentieth century that has frequently been undervalued. It has always been about more than just Hollywood, and this was highlighted by the BBC Concert Orchestra under Bramwell Tovey. He has an obvious affection for this repertoire, and it was by an enjoyable evening appreciated by an attentive audience.

Doreen Carwithen’s Overture to the eminently forgettable The Men of Sherwood Forest (1955) with the American actor Don Taylor as Robin Hood, arranged by Philip Lane, got things off to a vigorous start with its opening trumpet flourishes. It’s a stirring piece that could have been played with more dash at times, but the strings were touching in the score’s moments of reflection.  Carwithen composed over thirty film scores, and is a composer whose work should be more widely known. It is her centenary next year, and let’s hope the Proms celebrates her work in style.

Carwithen’s husband William Alwyn was featured in two extracts from one of his finest scores Odd Man Out (1947) directed brilliantly by Carol Reed and starring James Mason as a Nationalist activist on the run in Belfast. It is a great British noir than owes a lot of its power to Alwyn’s glowering yet subtle music.  Alwyn was a thoroughly professional film composer who could always see the overall structure of a film and had the ability to use the value of silence at key moments. A lot is lost when his music is divorced from the image but the two extracts ‘Police Chase’ and ‘Nemesis’ were, nevertheless, powerfully done with passionate strings and searing brass and Tovey drew the best playing of the evening from his orchestra in the fearsome climax and sombre conclusion to ‘Nemesis’.

The earliest film was Escape Me Never (1935) starring Elisabeth Bergner, and was William Walton’s first film score. It was a surprising box-office success, and part of that may have been due to Walton’s ripe music which was composed whilst he took a break from working on the First Symphony, and there are some similarities between the two works, particularly the recurring ostinato theme in the final Ballet. The BBCCO were a little too sleepy for my taste in the languorous ‘Prelude’ and ‘Venetian Idyll’, but perked up with pastoral woodwind and shimmering cowbells for the ‘In the Dolomites’ section.

Alan Rawsthorne’s score for The Cruel Sea (1953) frequently compliments the voiceover of Jack Hawkins, and suggests emotions that are buried deep within. It is one of Ealing Studios grimmest films, and Rawsthorne’s score is very effective. The ‘Opening Titles’ suggesting the swell of the sea, and a chill ‘Nocturne’ that follows was given an appropriately brooding quality by the BBCCO.

Elisabeth Lutyens was the first British female composer to score a feature film, and did numerous horror scores for Hammer and its rivals Amicus Productions. She apparently enjoyed being known as the “Horror Queen”, and she was fittingly commemorated with short extracts from The Skull (1965), with the incomparable duo of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and the skull in question being that of the Marquis de Sade.  It was a dose of bracing serialism, heavily scored and with some piercing woodwind well played by the BBCCO. Lutyens was the first British composer to master Schoenberg’s 12-tone system, and her work on The Skull and other films proved that for mid- twentieth century Britain there were few things more frightening than the Second Viennese School.

The England of Elizabeth Suite by Ralph Vaughan Williams, arranged by Muir Mathieson, comes from a 1957 documentary directed by John Taylor about the history, art and architecture of the Elizabethan period. It is a film in the British documentary tradition that should be merely worthy, but is an engrossing watch, in no small part due to the score by Vaughan Williams which is lush and sometimes thrilling.  The opening brass fanfares had bite and woodwinds were exuberant and poetic reflections were eloquently delivered by strings and harp (Elizabeth Bass, excellent throughout the evening). All three sections, ‘Explorer’, ‘Poet’ and ‘Queen’ were well dispatched although nothing can extinguish memories of André Previn and the LSO in this music. 

No programme of twentieth century British film music would be complete without Malcolm Arnold, especially in his centenary year. His gift for comedy as well as control of dramatic pacing make him an exceptional film composer by any standards. His soundworld which sometimes seems to call on the brass band as well as the pub piano makes him a composer of great light music. He was represented by two exceptional scores, both in suites arranged by Christopher Palmer. The seventeen-minute Concert Suite from Hobson’s Choice, the 1954 David Lean film with Charles Laughton, is a masterly condensation of a subtle and effective score where Arnold’s ability to match music to physical movement is brilliantly demonstrated and also makes use of some elements from his one-act opera The Dancing Master.  The Overture and ‘Shoe Ballet’ (where the six styles of footwear in Hobson’s shop window are demonstrated) was done with panache, there was delicate woodwind and strings for the Variations for the lovers William and Mary, and an affecting solo by the leader, Nathaniel Anderson-Frank, for ‘The Wedding Night’.  The vigorous Finale closed with comedy brass and percussion.

The Belles of St Trinian’s (1954), reportedly Arnold’s favourite score, had the orchestra’s seven percussionists donning schoolgirl boaters and plaits and flicking paper darts at one another. Alasdair Malloy provided a spirited turn on the spoons, and the piano duo parts were done with enthusiasm by Roderick Elms and Joanna Smith. Tovey made sure that the genteel waltz for Flash Harry (George Cole) and Miss Fritton (Alistair Sim in drag) had style, and that the tribal warfare of a St Trinian’s sports day had real weight. The encore of the ‘Colonel Bogie March’ from The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), with some first-rate whistling from the BBCCO, may have been a tad obvious, but also served as a reminder that Arnold won a Best Music Oscar for this score.

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