Recent Soundtrack CDs

by | Dec 19, 2005 | Special Features | 0 comments

The soundtracks have been piling up for some time in a corner of my office and I keep meaning to write up some of them, but I’m afraid some of these are not exactly new releases anymore. Had to divy them up into two installments, of which this is the first. There’s some good ones here, but in honor of our Honesty In Advertising Policy I feel I should point out in advance that I’m not an avid soundtrack-collecting fan, so take that into account reading my reviews. I often enjoy hearing the scores for films I really liked, and in a few cases have gone to see a film or rented it after hearing the soundtrack CD because I like the score so much. But I don’t feel there are a great many soundtracks which stand alone as good music without having seen the film first.

– John Sunier

KING KONG – Music composed by James Newton Howard – Universal BOOO5715-02 ****:

Boom, BOOM, BOOM! This score thumps its way into your subwoofer just as the big fellow does in the overlong three-hour Peter Jackson epic now playing in the theaters. Yes, this is the same James Newton Howard who put together that subwoofer-thumping rock demo CD for Sheffield some years ago.  But this score is closer to the old-fashioned symphonic Korngoldesque scores for the big Hollywood epics of the golden age of cinema. Most of it is wonderfully mysterious and dramatic.  A really huge orchestra and vocal ensemble was engaged for it – takes up a whole page in tiny print in the note booklet. No filling in with lots of synth here. Eight different orchestrators were involved in realizing Howard’s themes, and five different studios were involved in the recording process. Probably some of the large staff was required because soundtrack music is always the last thing thought of when doing a feature film, and it’s given the very least amount of time for completion before the Big Deadline, driving all involved to complete distraction. 

The ones of the 21 cues I especially like were “Something Monstrous…” and the five-part concluding section titled “Beauty Killed the Beast” – it could stand alone as a terrific modern version of a Lisztian tone poem. Fun stuff! Also, don’t forget the original Max Steiner symphonic score to the original King Kong, which is also nothing to shake a banana at either. It’s on Label X, and although dated- sounding musically, it’s of tremendous historical significance as one of the first big symphonic film scores, plus the fact the 1933 film has horrible fidelity on the soundtrack and the CD sounds great. It might be just as interesting to compare the audio portrayal of Kong in 1993 with his music in 2005 as comparing his visualization! There’s also a brand new recording of the score with the Moscow Symphony on Naxos 8.557700.

NARNIA – Music composed by Harry Gregson-Williams – Disney 61374-7 **:

Another epic in the vein of Lord of the Rings, but the score doesn’t quite come up to the achievement of that series, and from what I read of reviews neither does the film itself. There’s less battle music here, although accompanying a more real situation the first two cues on the Blitz in London and Evacuation are effective in setting the scene. There seems to be too exaggerated of an effort to sound really epic and widescreenish.  I found most of the score rather forgettable. The last four tracks features guest artists such as Alanis Morissette singing tunes, three of which are evidently heard in the film. I thought I heard quite a bit of synthesizer assistance in the dense scoring of the orchestral music as well.

WAR OF THE WORLDS – Music Composed and Conducted by John Williams – Decca BOOO4568-02 ****:

John Williams’ latest score provides a perfectly-matched accompaniment to the film’s often amazing images, and yet stands alone fairly well as some exciting symphonic movie music. Morgan Freeman does his best Richard Burton voice in the Prologue and The Reunion at the conclusion. The late-Romantic symphonic style established by Korngold in Hollywood is a good fit for this tale written in the Victorian age but brought up to date by both Spielberg and Williams.  The dynamic range is wide and it sounds like they assembled quite a gaggle of studio musicians for this session.  I wish Decca would issue this one on multichannel SACD. I see the DVD is already available – perhaps that will do. This disc makes an interesting companion to the recent reissue of the original Jeff Wayne audio drama on War of the Worlds.

While I’m not listing it for all the soundtrack discs, I think listing the tracks for this one might be useful:  Prologue, The Ferry Scene, Reaching the Country, The Intersection Scene, Ray and Rachel, Escape from the City, Probing the Basement, Refugee Status, The Attack on the Car, The Separation of the Family, The Confrontation with Ogilvy, The Return to Boston, Escape from the Basket, The Reunion, Epilogue.

A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT – Music by Angelo Badalamenti – Nonesuch 79880-2 ****:

Badalamenti is partial to the lower frequencies, and those who remember Twin Peaks will probably already be fans of his distinctive scoring. This score is a more broad symphonic style which beautifully fits the touching and often elegiac story of the Audrey Tautou lead character’s lengthy search for her supposedly-killed lover in the First World War. It is full of quirky unexpected images and situations perfected by director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who I automatically see everything by. His pitting wild and inspiring fantasies up against cruel reality (such as the mud and death of the trenches) is unique. Love that long tracking shot around the actors on the lighthouse, and Tautou playing the tuba by herself on the rocks by the sea. (Can’t help it if I’m in love with Audrey Tatou.) Badalamenti supports each of these scenes superbly with his heavy-on-strings score. With the classy skills of both director and composer, you’ll be really glad to be sad.

Cues: Main Title/The Trenches, First Love Touch, Heartbeat to a Gunshot, Mathilde’s Theme, Secret Code, Elodie’s Theme, Kissing thru Glass, Massage Fantasy, Never Had the Child, The Man from Corsica, Our Soldier’s Letters, Why Do You Cry?, End Titles.

LADIES IN LAVENDER – Original Music by Nigel Hess featuring Joshua Bell, violin –  Sony Classical ASK 92689 ****:

Without being a bio of a figure in music such as frequently seen recently, Ladies in Lavender makes music a central theme.  The unexpected derelict survivor of a shipwreck turns out to be a professional classical violinist, and the film ends with a group of townspeople proudly listening to a radio broadcast of him performing in London with a symphony orchestra. The cues will indicate the classical selections included in the score. Most of the rest of the cues are devoted to filling out the personalities of the two maiden sisters who take the young violinist into their home and react in differing ways to his being there. The skills of violinist Bell raise the selections for violin and orchestra to a higher level than one might expect in most film scores. A most affecting score to a most affecting film.

Cues: Ladies in Lavender, Olga, Teaching Andrea, Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra, Meditation from Thais, Our secret, On the Beach, Introduction and Tarantella, The Letter, Zabawa Weselna, Stirrings, Potatoes, The Girl with the Flaxen Hair, A Broken Heart, Two Sisters, The Carnival of Venice.

PRIDE & PREJUDICE – Music by Dario Marianelli performed by Jean-Yves Thibaudet with the English Chamber Orchestra – Decca BOOO5620-02 ***:

The creation of this soundtrack music followed quite a different course from the standard in the industry. Instead of being confined to a few hectic weeks to create the entire score, Marianelli and Thibaudet worked together in advance of completion of the shooting to select and create music that would have been listened to and appreciated by the Austen family in that period. Early Beethoven was the main focus, and Marianelli set about creating a score that would be similar to what the Austens were listening to at the end of the 18th century.  Thibaudet is a versatile pianist who skillfully realizes the music for piano and chamber orchestra. The style and mood is perfect for the images of the film – sounding appropriate to the period without being actual compositions of Beethoven and others of the times. Would be fun to play some of these 17 tracks for fellow music lovers and ask them to guess what composers they were hearing.

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE – Music Composed, Orchestrated and Conducted by Howard Shore – New Line Records 90512 4 *** 1/2:

This is the 11th David Cronenberg film for which Shore has done the soundtrack music. The Grammy Award-winning composer uses the French horn and alto flute to represent the two sides of the personality of the hero of the story and the story line which explores good and evil. According to Cronenberg, Shore’s music becomes another character in the film, who is wise, passionate and profound. The 14 cues are clearly for a motion picture rather than a standalone work. But they urge me to go see it.

HOSTAGE – Music composed, orchestrated and conducted by Alexandre Desplat with the London Symphony Orchestra – Superb 72051-2 ***:

The score for the recent Bruce Willis action film makes use of a wordless vocalist, electric cello and guitars, recorders, piano and some synth programming. It is rather predictable in nature for the edge-your-seat type situations in this thriller, and effective at that task. I don’t believe it stands well alone, but if you saw and loved the movie you would probably greatly enjoy hearing the score again. I don’t understand why – since surround sound is so integral to the moviegoing experience today – the soundtrack discs are not released as multichannel SACD, DTS 5.1, DD 5.1 or at least Dolby Matrix Surround.

CINDERELLA MAN – Music by Thomas Newman; Orchestra conducted by Armin Steiner – Decca B0004561-02 ***:

Another boxing movie, ho-hum. The symphonic cues involving struggle,
winning and losing fights, etc. are effective enough without the
images, but for me the occasional insertions of actual popular records
of the day (evidently the 1920s) spices up the soundtrack considerably.
They include one by Miff Mole, another by Bud Freeman’s Windy City Five
and even a closing tune by Eddie Cantor, plus some Irish music.

CRASH – Music composed, produced and performed by Mark Isham – Superb spb-cd-2512 ****:

One of Isham’s finest scores to one of the finest films of the past year. Director Paul Haggis became an instant fan of Isham’s work years ago hearing his music for Never Cry Wolf. Isham explains that there was almost no money for this job, and that actually freed him to create something unique, personal and more experimental than if there had been a big budget and he had been pushed to come up with a “safe” score to please the studio. He returned to his early “bedroom studio” origins and the flowing, often electronic ambient score that resulted seems to fit the images and mood of this extraordinary film perfectly. It often creates a sort of neutral bed of sound upon which the viewer can meditate on the interweaving plot lines and their compelling thoughts on racism, violence, interrelationships and coincidence – without the music telling you what you should feel about a particular scene. One of my favorite tracks from a recent film would be “A really good cloak” on this disc, with its evocative synthesized piano sound, joined eventually by a spacey organ sound. The cue “St. Christopher” brings across its spiritual nature with a wordless child soprano vocal. Isham has a distinctive way of using electronics to their utmost advantage in scores without seeming to be saddled with them due to budget limitations.



LES MISÉRABLES – Complete Film Score by Arthur Honegger – Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra/ Adriano – Naxos 8.557486, 59:00 ****:

Here is another complete film score, restored without the original
film’s dialogue, and with a full symphony orchestra in modern sonics. 
The recording was made in l989 and since Honegger was a Swiss-born
composer, the Swiss Cultural Foundation sponsored the preparation of
the score by Adriano. As the original Raymond Bernard version of the
Victor Hugo novel was produced in 1934, you can imagine the soundtrack
was extremely far from audiophile quality.  Honegger was an avid film
fan and saw the scoring as a distinct component in a unified medium of
image and music. Fellow composer Charles Koechlin considered Les
Misérables “undoubtedly one of the best film scores hitherto created.”

The recording omits some dance pieces not by Honegger and a couple of
other questionable cues, but restores music which was either not used
in the final film, shortened or prematurely faded out. Most of the cues
are of a chamber music nature, and only in a couple are the full
symphonic forces used. There were only eight strings, six winds, harp
and piano. This worked better for the primitive audio capacities of the
sound equipment in 1934. A “love” theme is frequently heard in the
score for Jean Valjean, and pseudo-folk music pieces appear as some of
the cues. Another recurring theme is a march-like cue for the prisoners.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST – Complete score by Georges Auric – Moscow Symphony Orchestra and Axios Chorus/Adriano  – Naxos 8.557707, 62:08 ****:
These Naxos film score CDs are something like the famous Charles Gerhardt series for RCA in the 1970s – researching/restoring the original scores for the film music and performing and newly recording them with a larger symphony orchestra than most of the soundtracks could obtain.  Some Eastern European orchestras have become specialists in this work, and are heard on all three of these discs. Adriano is a Swiss conductor who also prepares the full score and parts for the recording sessions.

Auric was one of Les Six in Paris and wrote primarily for the screen and theater. He scored not just French films but also many British and American films, and he collaborated with Jean Cocteau on his nine films. Beauty and the Beast was shot in l946 under very difficult postwar conditions, on a tiny budget, with Cocteau himself often ill. The acting of both Jean Marais and Josette Day was superb, the sets and camerawork were at genius-level and Auric created a lushly-scored accompaniment to the fairytale film. Unfortunately, the soundtrack quality of the film suffers greatly even in the carefully-restored Criterion Collection version (which is not currently available).  So it is a delight to hear a high-quality recording of the complete score (made in l994), played by a full symphony orchestra as skilled in this type of fare as the Moscow musicians. There are 24 very short cues. One of my favorites is “Les couloirs mysterieux” – for the scene when Beauty walks down the corridor of the Beast’s castle and human arms holding candelabras

THE MALTESE FALCON and other scores by Adolph Deutsch: THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS, HIGH SIERRA, NORTHERN PURSUIT, GEORGE WASHINGTON SLEPT HERE – Moscow Symphony Orchestra/ William Stromberg – Naxos 8.557701, 75:51 ****:

Adolph Deutsch, who lived until 1980, was one of the many distinguished composers working for the Warner Brothers Studio in the 1930s and 40s – though overshadowed by names such as Korngold, Waxman, and Max Steiner. Born in London, Deutsch had been associate music director for orchestra leader Paul Whiteman and also orchestrated and conducted many Broadway musicals in the 1920s. To provide a musically-varied overview of his work in films, five of his best scores for Warner Bros. were selected to be excerpted for this CD.

The Maltese Falcon of l941 is of course the best known. Deutsch created a subtle score that was designed to fit the mood of the movie without overpowering the picture. Deutsch didn’t want “leitmotifs” that took attention away from the characters and story and thus avoided the Wagnerian approach. Woodwinds predominate in the scoring. Little did Deutsch or any of the others involved in the film expect this modest little effort to be such a big hit!  George Washington Slept Here was one of Jack Benny’s several comedies. The six short cues almost sound like Carl Stalling scoring for cartoons. The Mask of Dimitrios of 1944 starred Peter Lorre as a detective investigating the mysterious career of a man named Dimitrios. The musical score provides a moody background to the dark and mysterious story and is somewhat similar to his approach in The Maltese Falcon. Northern Pursuit starred Errol Flynn in a story about a group of Nazis landing in Canada during the war, and featured some excellent ski chases.  Wartime musical themes which now sound corny abound in the ten cues from this film: The Maple Leaf Forever, Deutschland Über Alles, and the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth.

MONTY PYTHON’S SPAMALOT – Original Broadway Cast Recording with David Hyde Pierce, Tim Curry, Hank Azaria – Decca BOOO4265-02 ***:

I’ll wrap up with a disc that obviously is not a soundtrack but a show album that seems to fit this category better than our other sections. It looks like The Monty Python’s Eric Idle – who certainly hasn’t been idle – figured that since The Producers could encore a terrific motion picture with a successful Broadway music version of it he could do the same with some of the elements of the Phython’s medieval comedy sketches and their terrific motion picture Monty Python and the Holy Grail. They’ve even got some songs from The Life of Brian, such as “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” Composer John Du Prex collaborated with Idle on additional music. Instead of having the scenario of the musical in the note booklet, the entire spoken and sung musical libretto is provided. It’s a typical Phythonesque British slapstick treatment of the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable. Except that previous versions haven’t had Ladies of the Lake and other distractions. During its writing the show was sent around to the other Pythons and they all loved the number “The Song That Goes Like This.” So it’s reprised frequently. It’s all great fun, but I would think the eventual DVD video of the show would be even more fun.

– John Sunier

Related Reviews
Logo Pure Pleasure
Logo Apollo's Fire
Logo Crystal Records Sidebar 300 ms
Logo Jazz Detective Deep Digs Animated 01