Soundtrack CDs - June 2003

We have a variety of soundtracks this month to both current films and classics. Let’s start with the current:

NOWHERE IN AFRICA - Music by Niki Reiser - Higher Octave/Virgin 72435-83955-2-5V:

The 2003 Academy Award Winner for Best Foreign Language Film is simply one of the best films of the year of any sort, and the soundtrack is at as high a level of achievement as is everything else about the film. There was no note booklet with the review disc, and anyway most notes for soundtracks fail to tell you anything about the music or even the plot of the film, so Niki Reiser is a cypher to me. I do recall seeing a credit on the screen for a real symphony orchestra, so the rich symphonic music often heard in this score is not synthesized. Some of the film’s characters have leitmotifs, as identified in the titles of the 22 cues on the CD. The main themes are memorable, and the contrast between the music for the scenes in Germany and those in Africa are immediately evident. There is native drumming primarily for scenes such as the festival that the mother and daughter attend, not just crudely inserted into most of the score because this is an African movie. This CD provided fascinating listening before I viewed the movie, so it can be said that as a score it stands alone well. But don’t fail to see the movie too - it’s truly a winner.

- John Sunier

THE HOURS - Music by Philip Glass - Michael Riesman, piano/Lyric Quartet; Orch. conducted by Nick Ingman - Nonesuch 79693-2:

Michael Cunningham, the author of the novel on which the motion picture is based, states in his essay that he has been listening regularly to Glass since college and that he found a few other people who like himself adored it. Also that they tended to be obsession-prone. He says Glass’ music is to some degree part of everything he has written, so he was pleased when he learned The Hours would have soundtrack music from Glass. He points out that both Virginia Woolf (who is central to the story) and Glass are more interested in that which continues than that which begins, climaxes and ends. Thus the thoughtfully obsessive repetition of the film’s score beautifully parallels the story of the three women in different eras and situations but connected nevertheless in their dealing with life and death.

The general instrumentation is one of a piano concerto with string orchestra; there are 14 cues. While it would be nice when listening to the soundtrack to have also seen this magnificent film, the nature of Glass’ music is such that this CD could well appeal to those who never plan to see the movie. I think even those put off by most of Glass’ minimalism would find this music compelling and satisfying listening on its own terms.

- John Sunier

ASSASSINATION TANGO - RCA Victor 9026-64023-2:

Robert Duvall’s film will remind some of the Sally Potter film The Tango Lesson. The premise of the filmmaker’s fascination with the tango and its culture, putting himself/herself at the center of the story, and having a romantic relationship with the tango partner, is part of both stories. The Duvall effort, which garnered mixed reviews for a lack of focus, adds a story element involving a New York hit man who is hired to come to Buenos Aires to bump off a fascist general. Duvall is passionately involved in tango, as is Potter, and he is quoted as observing “To be a good tango dancer you should be a thief, a pimp, a bookie, or some kind of criminal,” so the story line fits the film well.

Fourteen tangos are featured on the soundtrack album; five of them are by Luis Bacalov, an Argentine native who did scores for Fellini and Wertmuller, and whose music for Il Postino was a gem. His contributions are somewhat closer to the New Tango style of Piazzola, while the other tracks are more of a standard old-fashioned tango genre. Nevertheless this is a very listenable/danceable collection of tango music for anyone interested in the form - whether or not you are interested in seeing the film.

- John Sunier

THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE - Music by Alex and Jake Parker - Decca 44006 67332 5:

Kevin Spacey and Kate Winslet starred in this suspense thriller about a prisoner who may be innocent awaiting his fate on Death Row. The score is the creation of the two sons of the film’s director Alan Parker, and is their first. The tension in the film is maintained with a strong rhythmic drive in the music, but there are also lush melodic sections. 16 cues make up the soundtrack CD, which will probably appeal most to those who have seen the film.

- John Sunier

PEOPLE I KNOW - Original score by Terence Blanchard - Decca 44001 77872 8:

The latest Al Pacino movie has the actor again in the role of someone who’s seen better times - in this case a New York publicist. Trying to aid his one remaining important client he becomes involved in confusions mixing celebrity status and politics. A mix of jazz and blues are served up by leading jazz composer Blanchard to support the mystery and drama of the film’s story line. In addition to the lyrical original Blanchard melodies he has chosen to include two vocal versions of Bye Bye Blackbird as bookends to the rest of the score - sung by Jon Hendricks and Rickie Lee Jones respectively, plus Hendrick’s original song Nothing to Me. There are 13 other instrumental cues plus these three vocals.

- John Henry

A pair of on-the-mark soundtrack CDs from the Marco Polo label...
THE FALL OF BERLIN; SUITE FROM THE UNFORGETTABLE YEAR 1919 - Music of Dmitri Shostakovich - Moscow Sym. Orch./Moscow Capella & Youth Chorus/Adriano - Marco Polo 8.223897:

There was a shorter version on a mono LP of the first of these film scores, in typically-atrocious Soviet sound of the period, but this is the premiere recording of the complete Shostakovich score. The 1919 film music is actually a seven-movement suite and here also receives its first complete recording. Shostakovich wrote 35 film scores, certainly a record for a well-known classical composer in the 20th century. Other well known Russian composers worked in the film industry as well and most seemed to have higher musical standards than the typical Hollywood composer. Shostakovich was skilled at writing war-inspired symphonic music so his work on this soundtrack flowed out of that.

The Fall of Berlin was a major production - in two parts, each over 70 minutes length. The first concentrates on a conventional love story and the second part deals with the battle for Berlin and Hitler’s last days. A strong heroic theme is introduced early in the score, and there are more lyrical themes in connection with the hero’s thoughts of his lover. The short cue accompanying Hitler’s reception could work as well with Charlie Chaplin’s satirization of the dictator. The final cues of both parts suffer from typical bombastic Soviet corniness, but we can sympathize with Shostakovich for the tremendous pressures under which he had to compose everything - not just film music. It’s enjoyable to hear such skilled performances of this music, and so well reproduced after the questionable sonics of most of the Soviet efforts.

BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA; DEATH AND THE MAIDEN, PEARL IN THE CROWN, THE BEADS OF ONE ROSARY, THE KING OF THE LAST DAYS - Music by Wojciech Kilar - Cracow Philharmonic Chorus/Polish National Radio Sym./Antoni Wit - Marco Polo 8.225153:

Kilar provided scores to over one hundred Polish films before he came to attention in the U.S. with his very effective music for Coppola’s Dracula. Following that he scored The Ninth Gate and Roman Polanski’s superb Death and the Maiden. The composer won an ASCAP award for his evocative and melodic music for the lavish film of the Dracula story. Khachaturian may come to mind in Kilar’s music for the heroines of the story, and the concluding movement of the six-movement suite here brings Bernard Hermann-like writing to the fore in depicting a storm. Biblical images and religious intrigue are found in The King, which concerns the leader of the Anabaptists in the 16th century. There are only three cues from the Polanski film, but they carry strong emotional content in the drama of three people in extremis in a single claustrophobic set. Another fascinating Marco Polo film music collection.

- John Sunier

MUSIC FOR FILMS By Phillip Johnston - GELD; MONEY MAN; UMBRELLAS; MUSIC OF CHANCE - various ensembles incl. Johnston on soprano sax - Tzadik TZ 7510:

Yes, there is a cover there and the type is almost invisible. 32 cues are presented, with a rather subtle and hidden guide to which ones are from which of the four films. All are in a strongly improvisatory and fairly experimental style and involve a chamber ensemble with such well-known performers as Dave Douglas on trumpet and Guy Klucevsek on accordion. Interesting mixtures of string instruments with B3 organ, banjo, dobro, tuba and electric guitars mark these fresh-sounding filmic accompaniments. I was reminded of some of the work of Bobby Previte on the same path-breaking record label. The opening nine tracks are from Music of Chance and feature the largest ensemble with the greatest variety of sounds. I was wondering what images were on the screen for some of these selections; they run from as brief as 25 seconds to several minutes long. Interesting stuff, regardless.

- John Sunier

Two Broadway classics, one reissued and the other in a brand new production...
CARMEN JONES - Original Cast Album - Musical play based on Bizet’s Carmen, with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett - Decca mono 440 066 780-2:

This l944 all-black-cast setting of the Carmen opera was originally released on both 12 inch and 10 inch 78s, then later on both 45s and LP, and this is its very first reissue on compact disc. Transferred to a modern American war-time situation, the story unfolds near a southern town where Carmen works in parachute factory instead of a cigarette factory, and the former toreador is now a famous prize fighter, while Don Jose (Joe) is still a soldier. Hammerstein changed Bizet’s music only in two of the arias in the complete opera. Most of the performers were unknowns and some had never been on the professional stage. Muriel Smith, who played Carmen, worked in a camera shop. The Boston tryouts of the show fell flat, but in New York it was a big hit, running eventually 502 performances. The recitatives were eliminated and the actors just spoke to one another, and of course the lyrics are entirely different. On some the new reality works well, but on others there’s a bit of a stretch. For example, Micaela’s song Dites-moi de ma mere becomes You Talk Just Like Ma Maw. There’s also something not-quite-politically-correct about the black-speak that didn’t seem to disturb one in Porgy & Bess, for example. The mono sound is quite good, coming from the original 78 rpm glass masters, and probably run thru a modicum of digital noise reduction.

MAN OF LA MANCHA - New Broadcast Cast Recording with Brian Stokes Mitchell, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Ernie Sabella; Written by Dale Wasserman, Music: Mitch Leigh; Lyrics: Joe Darion - RCA Victor 9026-64007-2:

This recent revival of the mid-sixties musical based on a TV play of the late fifties again brings to Broadway some great tunes in American musical theater: The Impossible Dream, Dulcinea, I Really Like Him. Jonathan Kent, musical director of this new production, observes that with its themes of purity of heart and the power of imagination to aid us in transcending difficult situations, Man of La Mancha is not a musical for cynics. The acting is top-flight and the new arrangements sound fresh without trying to take the music into rock or pop regions. Mitchell is superb in the role of the befuddled would-be knight errant. This is a great musical to just listen to since most of us are quite familiar with the story. However, if you want to catch every word, there is a complete English libretto printed in the note booklet - but why or why did they have to print it entirely in CAPS?

- John Sunier

The irrepressible Noel Coward times two in our last show biz reissues...

NOEL COWARD IN LAS VEGAS - Columbia/DRG 19037 mono:
NOEL COWARD IN NEW YORK - Columbia/DRG 19038 mono:

These were originally a pair of Columbia LPs released in l955 and 1956 respectively. Carlton Hayes and Orchestra backed Coward’s songs in the first with piano accompaniment and arrangements by Peter Matz. Matz handled all the music chores in the NYC outing. Coward’s uniquely urbane and fey British wit knocked ‘em dead in both venues. Plus he had the support of all the wonderful tunes he had written over the years, including some new ones he introduced in these two live appearances. Classics such as Someday I’ll Find You, I Love Were All, The Party’s Over Now, Sail Away.

Then there are his inimitable humorous ditties, delivered with the panache that only Coward himself could accomplish: Mad Dogs and Englishmen, I Went to a Marvelous Party, Alice Is At It Again, A Bar on the Piccola Marina, Why Must the Show Go On, Uncle Harry. Sure, Half-Caste Woman may not be politically correct today, but it’s still a great song on an interesting idea - not that different from Ten Cents a Dance. Part of his great charm seems to have been that mixed in with all the sophisticated, upper-class, world-weary sentiments was some truly heart-felt sentiment that grabbed people.

- John Sunier

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