Review: Essential Elmer Bernstein Collection, The
3.5 / 5 Stars
According the producer's note, this 2-CD set was planned as a tribute to Elmer Bernstein after his death last year and it does serve as quite a noble, if obviously incomplete, summation of the manís marvelous music for film. Silva Screen Records has compiled several of these sets together for other such notable composers as Jerry Goldsmith and Alfred Newman and the reception is most often mixed. The label has made extensive use of The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra in almost all of its re-recordings, plus various choral groups, conducted by Nic Raine, and it has often seemed that their reach exceeded their grasp in these ambitious film score projects. Complaints varied, noting wrong notes, sloppy performances and sluggish tempos. Personally, I have listened to their collections since the early 90's and have been impressed with how much their skill and musicianship has audibly grown over the years. They have tackled more and more complex compositions and in some rare cases, eclipsed the original recordings in terms of excitement and precision.
In this new set, consisting of several world premiere recordings, there are the expected highs and lows, hits and misses. Many of these suites and themes have been presented in this format on other albums, so it makes comparisons inevitable. They expectedly open disc one with The Magnificent Seven overture and while competent it lacked the necessary fire. To Kill A Mockingbird fares better, but unfortunately The Buccaneer suffers the same fate as The Magnificent Seven. With Walk on the Wild Side, there is less bluster as heard in previous performances, but the guest appearance of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra showcases a more subtle cockiness and swinging attitude in the music, with great use of flutter-tongue flute and Hammond organ. What follows is the first world premiere cut, the "Metamorphosis" sequence from An American Werewolf in London. I do not recall the specifics of the original cues, but this version to me seemed a fine performance in terms of excitement and melodramatic horror outbursts mainly in the woodwinds and horns.
The Age of Innocence and The Comancheros both follow as genuinely heartfelt and lively tracks on this set. The liner notes mention how much the Prague orchestra enjoyed working with Elmer himself, so perhaps this love was their motivation in most of these new recordings. The famous Ondes Martenot is not heard on the gorgeous "Taarna's Theme" from Heavy Metal, but instead a flute is doubled by an electronic simulation of the Martenot in those opening measures. The overall performance canít dampen the beauty of the main melodic line, but the brass seemed a bit under whelming to me. The other noteworthy selections on this first disc are the Johnny Staccato theme and "River Crossing" from Zulu Dawn, the former for its verve and pep and the latter for its determined drive and ebullience.
Disc two begins strong with a faithfully jaunty performance of The Great Escape, but dips suddenly in a weak rendition of The Man With The Golden Arm, which simply needs more punch, strength and nervous energy. Far From Heaven fares much better, though is a bit rushed and repetitive at times. A suite from the 1980 comedy classic Airplane receives its world premiere, starting with John Williams' shark motif from Jaws, heard as the tail of the plane slices through ominous cloud cover. The suite covers the opening thematic material, the over-arching love theme and the swelling climax, complete with straining sopranos. Subsequent tracks present the Silva versions of The Shootist and Hawaii, which are both invigorating and exciting, but I almost wish their percussion section had been slightly fuller for these. The next premiere recording tackled is the "Finale" from The Birdman of Alcatraz, a brief yet melancholy and sensitive piece, handled well here by the orchestra.
The Hallelujah Trail bursts forth with vivacity to spare, the brass together in force and the thematic material aptly soaring and engaging. Now the theme from The Bridge at Remagen I was not familiar with before hearing it in this collection but I found this a quite memorable due its tightly wound energy and sonorous strings and brass. The final world premiere included is "Sky-Hi", sprightly waltz tune from Thoroughly Modern Millie, for which Bernstein was gifted with is sole Academy Award. Disc two and the collection as a whole happily finish strongly with rousing renditions of The Scalphunters and The Ten Commandments. The Silva should again be commended for their efforts in covering so much musical ground in these film composer overviews, a Herculean task in and of itself regardless of how one might judge the performances. The hits outweigh the misses here, making this an ideal primer for any new fans curious about the distinctive, passionate music of Elmer Bernstein.
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