AOM Logo April 1999

20th Century Fox: Music from the Golden Age

Varese Sarabande VSD 5937

David Aspinall

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I don't normally get very excited about anthologies or "best of" packages, but here is a conspicuous exception. I offer two reasons: Most of the recordings here are unavailable elsewhere, and this particular package, expertly assembled by the invaluable Nick Redman, is arranged so as to maximize its value to those who know little of the "Golden Age" of Hollywood film scores. (To judge by film music websites I have discovered so far, while the art of film music is more popular than ever, knowledge of the practitioners, even founders of that art prior to Williams and Goldsmith, is pathetically shallow!)

What Redman has managed in this collection more than overcame my bias against the "best of" concept. By judicious (and non-chronological) arrangement of the cues, Redman has managed to emphasize the amazing stylistic versatility of the composers, and the breadth, dexterity - and even profundity - of which Hollywood's greatest musical artists were capable.

Some years ago, that astutely ascerbic music critic of Films in Review, the late Page Cook, managed to scandalize a good number of his readers with a column which was even more controversial than his norm. What did Cook do, to offend film music fandom even more than did his frequent caustic comments about Tiomkin and Jarre? Even more than his not-infrequent tirades against the reigning titans, Goldsmith, Williams and Morricone? Well, Cook reviewed an album that didn't exist! The concept of this (non-existent) album was Classic Film Music of Twentieth Century Fox. It was a Page Cook fantasy from start to finish, including suites (if memory serves) by Cook's favourites David Raksin, Bernard Herrmann, Hugo Friedhofer and, of course, Alfred Newman. Perhaps if Cook had acknowledged, at the end of the review, his indulgence, he would have been forgiven readily. But having whetted his public's appetite for this - even as late as the '80s - fantastically improbable concept album - Cook took the considerable heat for what, in retrospect, looks less like his "little joke" and more like the aggregate resentment of a segment of the music-loving public used to being neglected and disappointed.

Well, it's a shame Page Cook didn't live to see this. Nick Redman, did Cook's fantasy stir more in you than mere resentment? Redman and Varese have given us even more than Cook's fertile imagination concocted, back in those primeval ages when a forty-minute running time was the norm. Redman has given us nearly seventy minutes of prime Fox soundtrack excerpts. Of the twenty-eight tracks, Newman and Herrmann get the lion's share of space (I know, wrong studio!), with ten and seven excerpts respectively. Friedhofer, Goldsmith, Alex North, Franz Waxman, even Cyril Mockridge and Victor Young are here, too. The only conspicuous absentee is Raksin - let's hope this means there's more Raksin around the corner to top up the already released Laura, Forever Amber and The Bad and the Beautiful.

And Redman has made sure his selections' contrast maximizes their impact. Herrmann's sublime Andante Cantabile from The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, for example, is followed immediately by Newman's Prelude to Captain from Castile - Herrmann at his most mystical and metaphysical set off by Newman's dynamism at white heat. No adjective short of orgasmic seems to suffice for the Newman, but conversely I know of no music married to celluloid (save perhaps Korngold's prayer for Carlotta in Juarez) that is less earthy than this divine fragment from Mrs. Muir. Another such contrast: the stark Main Title to Newman's Leave Her to Heaven followed by Young's artlessly simple The Tall Men. The complex response demanded by this typically brief Newman statement, pounding timpani, fateful brass and strings, somehow both ecstatic and tortured set alongside Young's almost unison song in the entire orchestra, evoking nothing more complex than the warm haze of the Western plains. (You can get more of Young's western style on a Richard Kaufman Koch CD featuring Young's classic Shane). His tuneful simplicity made majestic by its orchestral dress is in marked contrast to Goldsmith's Rio Conchos, much more an authentic approach, with guitar, harmonica and reduced ensemble.

After this virtuosic, percussion and brass-heavy display, which in turn follows upon a spectacular excerpt from Goldsmith's Patton, it is almost with physical as well as psychic relief we find ourselves beside a balmy New England beach for the finale of A Man Called Peter. With Peter's tender eloquence, Alfred Newman, fittingly, brings down the curtain on this wonderful tribute to the musicians who served the studio where he himself laboured so long, both as creator and administrator. Let me pay tribute to that extraordinary stable of musicians, but particularly to Newman and Nick Redman, without whose labours we would not ourselves be able to enjoy in our living rooms that which, for the generation of Page Cook, was a mere pipe dream.

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