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CD Reviews: Strangers and Bulge

Into the Arms of Strangers ****


Chapter III CHA 1006-2

15 tracks - 42:30

Applying dramatic techniques to documentary filmmaking is a tricky and intangible process; witness the difference between something like Errol Morris' Fast, Cheap and Out of Control and Barbara Kopple's Harlan County, USA. But while the dividing line between realism and drama has always been blurry, for composers this seems to result in fertile grounds for planting musical ideas. Lee Holdridge is no stranger to documentaries (he scored the Oscar-winning The Long Way Home) and his newest project, Into the Arms of Strangers, allows him the room to develop a more traditional dramatic underscore with a careful eye on his boundaries. Into the Arms of Strangers also reunites Holdridge with Long Way Home writer/director Mark Jonathan Harris, and the result is a surprisingly varied soundtrack album.

Holdridge approaches the material with admirable restraint, using a handful of Yiddish children's songs as the emotional backbone for his own compositions. This extremely well-sequenced album allows for a lot of delicate emotional fluctuations. It's a testament to Holdridge's capacity as a talented melodic composer that he's able to keep the material so focused without becoming maudlin and self-consciously melancholy. His "Main Theme" has a childlike simplicity of tone, but compositionally it's carefully guarded, never leaning in directions that could cause the rest of the score to spin out of control. Even when the score hits darker notes ("Gathering Darkness," "Somewhere to Belong") Holdridge's melodic focus keeps the score beautifully controlled. And when the music hits its emotional peak, in "Living With the Past," you don't feel cheated whatsoever, because the release has been earned.

The subject matter and style of this film and its score warrants inevitable comparisons to Schindler's List. This album, however, combines the Yiddish folksong and original underscore in a more streamlined and effective way than the Schindler's List album did, by arranging the songs in such a way that it lends itself to the emotional flow of the story. All due credit goes to Holdridge for not succumbing to heart-on-the-sleeve, tearjerking writing that distracts from the power inherent in the storytelling.  -- Jason Comerford

Battle of the Bulge **** 1/2


CPO 999 696-2

18 tracks - 78:58

British composer Benjamin Frankel's massive body of film work (he worked on 68 films and countless other television productions) is almost entirely unrepresented in album form; indeed, this new recording of his classic score for Battle of the Bulge marks the first time one of his scores has been recorded for album release. This is both disappointing and surprising, given the obvious talent he possessed -- hopefully this album will go some way to rectifying the loss.

Battle of the Bulge, nominated for a Golden Globe, was actually his last score; the film itself is still fondly remembered, appearing on television seemingly every other week. Like many films of its ilk, it featured an all-star cast, with Henry Fonda and Robert Shaw principal among it. This album features the Queensland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Werner Andreas Albert, and is performed extremely well, with the appropriate vigor. The score also receives an exemplary recording.

My first thought was to describe this music as 75% Alex North and 25% Ron Goodwin. But in truth that would be doing a massive disservice to Frankel. I reached my original conclusion based on the intricately detailed, precise orchestration and elaborate percussion so typical of North's output. The occasional quotes from the quasi-comical "Panzerlied," a traditional German marching song, brings to mind Goodwin's work on all those British World War II films.

Frankel's themes are not the sort that you will be humming in the aisles, and nor should they be. However, Frankel does construct his music based around a series of impressive themes. Most of them appear in abbreviated form in the short "Prelude." Perhaps the most impressive cues are the extended action pieces, especially "First Tank Battle" and "Final Tank Battle" (totaling 15 minutes between them). The writing in these is as impressive as anything that North would have written for the film...and just as detailed. Contrasting with this is the sublime and beautiful "Hessler in High Spirits."

Sitting a bit awkwardly alongside the rest of the music are a few more lighthearted moments like "Soldiers in Hiding" and "Christmas in Ambleve," which actually interpolates a couple of Christmas carols; "Good King Wenceslas" and "The First Noel." While they are fine in their own right, they do come as slightly jarring when put together with the somewhat brutal remainder of the score.

This small problem aside, Battle of the Bulge is superb, and E.D. Kennaway has every right in his excellent liner notes to paint it as a classic score. Hopefully this will lead to a resurgence of interest in Frankel and perhaps the release of some of his other scores.  -- James Southall

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