Music for Movies: The Importance of Being Earnest. Curse of
the Werewolf. The Night of the Iguana. Trottie True. The
Years Between. Footsteps in the Fog.
Queensland Symphony Orch/Werner Andreas Albert, cond.
cpo 999 809 (F) (DDD) TT: 67:13
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British composer Benjamin Frankel is probably best known for his violin concerto and for a powerful cycle of eight symphonies, most written toward the end of his life. Frankel was born into the British working class (or shabby-genteel lower middle class -- depends on your point of view) and was apprenticed at a young age to a watchmaker. The odds against his becoming a composer were huge; the odds against him making a living at it even huger. Nevertheless, he caught a very lucky break and managed to learn the violin. In the Twenties, still in his teens, he worked in fairly good dance bands, including Henry Hall's BBC band, as a violinist and arranger. He became music director for top West End shows and in the Thirties began to score movies. Simultaneously, he turned out orchestral and chamber works. CPO's biographical notes are a bit sketchy. They don't say anything not true, but they do leave out a lot. Frankel was an enthusiastic member of the British far left and in the Fifties started to get into trouble for it, not so much among the centrist establishment, but from in-fighting among those who had left the Communist Party over the Czech purge trials and those who would eventually leave the Party over the Hungarian uprising -- pretty much the final straw for those who had turned to Soviet Communism as a humane alternative to rapacious capitalism. He left Britain for Switzerland in the late Fifties, although he died in London in 1973.
Here we have some of Frankel's most ingratiating and effective film music. Film music only relatively recently has begun to garner some respect among the studios that commissioned it. Many very important scores have been lost -- destroyed, in most cases, by the studios who neither wanted to return it to the composers (the studios had, after all, paid for it) nor bear the cost of storage. Vaughan Williams and Walton were exceptions. They had the clout to stipulate in their contracts that a studio had to return their scores to them. As a result, we have Vaughan Williams's seventh symphony and Walton's Spitfire Prelude and Fugue and Shakespearean suites. The studio reasoning went that, after all, the music was preserved on the soundtrack, never thinking that the films themselves might become lost or so degraded that retrieving the music became impossible. Consequently, we have very little of Frankel's film music. He did keep copies of a few scores -- fortunately, his more ambitious. Sometimes the arranger, E. D. Kennaway had to listen to the soundtrack or work from piano scores.
It's worth noting that putting movie music out on this kind of CD usually involves arranging. We don't normally hear the pure soundtrack. The movie composer usually writes little snips of music, almost none of them more than a minute long. Except for opening and closing credits, he rarely has a chance at anything longer. Thus, the "suites" we hear on soundtrack albums and on CDs like this one come into existence because someone, usually not the composer, has stitched the scraps together. This is true for every score on this CD, with the exception of the one for John Huston's Night of the Iguana, although even here Kennaway provided a two-note cadence at the end of one sequence.
The CD reveals Frankel as at least a fine craftsman. I've never been a fan of the movie The Importance of Being Earnest, despite the presence of the delectable Joan Greenwood as Gwendolyn. It moves far too heavily. Perhaps the absence of a live audience played hell with the actors' timing. The music works well in the film, but you can't call it memorable, in the sense that you can almost any score by Korngold, Herrmann, or Rózsa. Trottie True, a film I've never seen, on the life and loves of a Gaiety Girl works the same vein as Earnest far more successfully, with rumpty-tumpty, Sullivanesque tunes ingratiating themselves into your musical soul as sweet as sin. For Curse of the Werewolf, a Hammer horror film, Frankel provided a score much better than it had to be. It was, according to the notes, the first British film score written mostly in dodecaphonic serialism. In the movie, it's appropriately creepy. The sequence selected for the CD, however, "Pastoral," effectively mixes Mahler birdsong and British pastoralism. Here and there, it reminded me of Bernard Herrmann at his most relaxed. Footsteps in the Fog is one of my favorite British films. Starring Jean Simmons (as a conniving little psychopath) and Stewart Granger (as a cad who has poisoned his wife), the movie explores an extremely troubling co-dependency. The music rides these psychological undercurrents with great style and great insight. I worried a little that the score might not hold up on its own, but I needn't have bothered. Kennaway has done a beautiful job of reconstruction.
The most elaborate representation on the CD consists of Frankel's score for Night of the Iguana, one of the few scores Frankel actually kept. For my money, the movie is pretentious -- worse, old-fashioned pretentious -- hokum. Iguana may be the worst movie John Huston (though not its star, Richard Burton) ever made, entirely due to the awful Tennessee Williams play on which it's based. Frankel's music, on the other hand, is wonderful, and Huston gives him many opportunities to build extended paragraphs. This is my favorite sequence on the CD -- emotionally rich and, at the same time, concisely written.
Albert and the Queensland do all right, although sometimes you hear something rhythmically lax or tonally raw. Albert nevertheless manages to keep the big picture, so to speak, constantly in view. The sound is a bit bright for my taste, but still acceptable. Some people actually want to hear more highs than lows.
S.G.S. (June 2002)