by David A. Koran
Well some of us fans of great film music have gotten a treat within the last month or so when two labels decided to invest a little of their holdings into producing, each, a set of four recordings of classic film scores. Varese Sarabande has made the step into producing a complete series of new recordings for the soundtrack market, of which four were released on July 29th, Elmer Bernstein's "To Kill A Mockingbird", Alex North's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", Bernard Herrmann's "Psycho", and Jerry Goldsmith's "Patton" and "Tora! Tora! Tora!".
To Kill A Mockingbird
Now, I can claim myself as one of those Bernstein fans who will probably buy anything he writes, although with one exception of "True Grit" (several large "Yeeech! What were you thinking Elmer?"'s). After the latest release of his own "Buddy" just a few weeks earlier, we got a taste of Bernstein returning to his musical roots which pretty much started with "To Kill A Mockingbird". After not having seen this movie in about two years, you may at first not be able to place where thing reside in the story musically, however, the sequencing on the albums that have been released, are step in step with the cinematic progression on the screen. The "Main Title" is mesmerizing in is charm and simplicity (making me want to go to the video store to rent it again), a solo piano melody floating through the air painting a aural picture of the "sweet south" at the time the picture was set. As with many of the motion pictures of it's time, the musical arrangements were set to dead dialogue spaces in which "pure" screen acting were taking place, acting as another actor within the scene, none more so than that of cue seven "Ewell's Hatred". It's a nice change to hear pieces like this in a day and age that movies are hard pressed to keep their running time down to 90 minutes and bombard the audience with dialogue and action and leaving no moment for pause an reflect on the emotions of the actors on-screen. The album is a very clean and well recorded piece, thoughtfully produced with extensive liner notes and really first class (commissioned) artwork. I remember having to read Harper Lee's book in school, and spending most of my time wishing there was a film about it (at that time, people weren't seen going into a video store often) because of the amount of detail that she took in describing the atmosphere both physically and emotionally in her snapshot of Macomb County, Alabama. I kind of wish this album would have seen the light of day earlier than it has, and personally, I've spent the last 18 months looking for it after hearing initial plans of it being recorded... Now it was well worth the wait!
Patton / Tora! Tora! Tora!
Hmmmm... This is one of those things that your wonder did he REALLY want to do it this way? Once again we have the composer of these pieces conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra ("If it's not Scottish... It's crap!" - Mike Myers from Saturday Night Live) in City Halls, Glasgow, Scotland. This locale and orchestra was used for Bernstein's "To Kill A Mockingbird", but the sound is much different this time around. Both "Patton" and "To Kill A Mockingbird" have seen release on vinyl and in a bootlegged form on CD, so a large numbers of listeners have a predisposition on how things are supposed to sound. Well, your very first U-turn occurs with the opening bars of "Patton" with the ACOUSTICALLY produced trumpet voluntary instead of the electronic "echo-box" version used in the film. As a trumpet player, while listening, it sounds like they sent the hearty group of the principal and assistant principal trumpets to go play in another part of the building... far down at the other end of the hall... Sounding very interesting but funny at the same time once you realized what they attempted to do. The score is much the same way it was treated on the original LP of the album except for an over-eager percussion section that seemed more apt for playing for the royalty than producing an American military march. A nice treat is the insertion of two pieces, "The Hospital" which was not used in the film and "Entr'acte" which supposedly is an alternative version of the "Main Title" which only received viewing on the bootleg CD of the score. Still, all in all, as with most releases in Varese's new batch, it's a joy to finally hear a professional recording of the piece, even though the high-brass section tried but didn't always hit their mark. "Tora! Tora! Tora!" suffers many of the same problems "Patton" did in it's recording process with the orchestra as well as only having a sparse treatment of five actual cues. Once again, new artwork has been applied to the packaging as well with the booklet of detailed liner notes by Kevin Mulhall.
Excuse me? Who hasn't been waiting for this classic Herrmann score... Yes, you in the back.. You haven't.. Please step outside so we can have our associates dispose of your carcass. Ok, so it's a bit harsh, but with a plethora of really bad scores and soundtracks taking up five or six rows in the local record store (achem.... "Hercules") and having driven over 50 miles to find a copy of this at a reasonable price, I think I have a right to exaggerate. This release has over forty, count them, FORTY, albeit short, cues sequenced pretty much as they appeared in the film (why can't the record companies do this all the time?), everything from the fully errie "Prelude", to screeching signature piece "The Murder", to the ominous "Finale". Conducted by Joel "I've recorded as much Herrmann as Herrmann" McNeely, it doesn't suffer from his "not composed by me" syndrome that was most prevalent in McNeely's own "Shadows of the Empire" (He can conduct, just don't ask him to write anything). Everything has remained intact and in-step with the original sound of the film, once again brought to the aluminum and plastic disc by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and overseen by the genius of the production and recording studio, Robert Townson. This is the kind of release that makes you want to walk down to your local video store and rent a copy and re-live the music (or for the really picky, find out how well the reproduction is).
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf
This album is from a very obscure (or at least for my generation) movie of an adaptation of Edward Albee's Off-Broadway play. Mind this is North's mid-carrer spanning score which started off with a very stylistic "A Street Car Named Desire" in 1951, and closed with little known "The Penitent" in 1988. The score is very different sound than what we would hear for the rejected "2001 : A Space Odyssey" a year later. This is a very muted an undistinguised score, relying much upon orchestrations one would find in classic chamber music. It's a nice piece with the least amount of cues from this intial Varese release. I'd say you could probally put purchasing this score on hold if you're looking for strictly thematic material, say a "Patton-esque" march or the like. Jerry Goldsmith took the helm of the National Philharmonic Orchestra for this recording as he did for the 1993 version of North's "2001 : A Space Odyssey", possibly following McNeely's lead with Herrmann. The liner notes are a little less extensive than the other three in this set, resorting to almost "micro type" to fit them in six pages (one of which is a recap on Goldsmith's credits).