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CD Reviews: Georges Auric and Lucy Whipple

Georges Auric, Film Music Vol. 4 ****


Marco Polo 8.225136

18 tracks - 59:33

In his early days, Georges Auric was a member of "Les Six," a group of French composers attempting to create a new approach to music and art in the 1920s. Basically, the group wanted to streamline music by removing the heavy chromatic writing of Wagner (who was a heavy influence over French composers at the beginning of the 20th century) and the influence of Debussy. The result was really the roots of neo-Classical composition and even minimalism, in that they returned to an 18th century concept of harmonic movement while using repetitive cells of music. That is not to imply that the music is devoid of interest; in fact, the opposite is true because added to this "new" style was a rhythmic development influenced by American Jazz, and also played with musical form.

Jean Cocteau was a patron of this new music and is indelibly linked to the French avant garde of the 1920s. Auric collaborated with him on six films, including La Belle et la Bete (1946) easily one of the masterpieces of French film music (released on Marco Polo 8.223765).

Based on an Andre Gide novella, Cocteau's La Symphonie Pastoral (1946) tells of a blind orphan girl and the conflict that results in her adoptive family as the jealousy increases between her adoptive parents, and the amorous attentions of their eldest son. The "Main Title" is accompanied by four extended pieces from the second half of the film. The score is magical, at times belying the ruin that is to come. The orchestration is fascinating; Auric's piano fights against the strings in a near concerto style. Small motifs are recognizable, but the "leitmotif" style popular in Hollywood is absent. While the music is labeled as a "suite" there does not appear to be much doctoring to fill out the ends of the music (the abrupt endings must match the scene cuts). As it is, La Symphonie Pastorale stands comfortably along side the best piano and orchestra film scores of the 1940s.

Macao (1939) is set during the Japanese-Chinese war and revolves around the intrigue from an arms sale gone awry. The music is precisely fitting of "Les Six," especially in "Chinoiserie," but the writing also bears similarity to Arthur Honegger's film work of the time. Evidently, the music comes from a "stack bearing the name 'Macao'," and Adriano attempted to piece together the music. The score is gloomier in most of its constituent parts, especially the dramatic "Interlude." Most will find this more difficult listening, but it is a great example of alternative dramatic scoring from the early years of cinema.

Du rififi (1954) is the epitome of French "film noir." The orchestra is substantial, including three saxophones, harp, piano and celesta. The nearly 20 minutes of music included make it obvious that this is one of the great scores of the 1950s. The bluesy "Main Title" kicks off the four excerpts. "Preparations" is filled with amazing countrapuntal work. This is a score that deserves a fuller restoration and makes an interesting comparison to techniques employed by Rósza in his forays into "film noir," and even those by Herrmann in his Hitchcock scores.

The disc closes with the "Main Title" and "Finale" to Le salaire de la peur (1953), Henri-Geroges Clouzot's masterpiece about four men hired to truck nitro-glycerin through the South American mountains in what must be some of the most tense scenes on film. Auric supplied two pieces: the "Main Title" and a version of Johann Strauss, Jrs. "The Blue Danube" heard in the end of the film as a source cue (arranged by Auric). The "Main Title" opens with mostly percussion and moves into gentle Spanish guitar music to help set the locale. The powerful finale is in a sense reenacted here (through sound effects) giving the CD a rather jarring conclusion. (At any rate, this is a film that everyone must see.)

The recording is engineered fairly well with bass muddiness at times. As is the case with other recordings by the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, the strings get a bit thin in more difficult passages and intonation is sometimes a problem; overall the interpretations come across just fine. As far as the music goes, this is an amazing collection from one of French cinema's great masters. Auric may be best known for his score to Moulin Rougebut he actually wrote 95 film scores (an impressive number by any stretch of the imagination), and most of this output is all but unknown to film score fans.    -- Steven A. Kennedy

The Ballad of Lucy Whipple ***


Intrada MAF 7088

15 tracks - 36:38

It's old hat to ask this, but why won't someone give Bruce Broughton a blockbuster to sink his teeth into? His Lost in Space soundtrack was easily the best ingredient in the movie, but now he's basically relegated to TV movie purgatory. The composer's first new work in two years is his third tele-soundtrack in a row, following on from the biblical opulence of Jeremiah and movie-of-the-week Night Ride Home. And although Broughton's Ballad of Lucy Whipple is set in the Old West, it's no Silverado. But let's not forget that Broughton cut his teeth on such TV fare as How the West was Won and Gunsmoke, so perhaps it would be unfair to compare Lucy with Silverado or his equally rousing Tombstone.

Lucy Whipple stars Glenn Close as a widow staking out a new life for her family in Gold Rush California. The eponymous Lucy is her spunky teenage daughter who undergoes a rite of passage. She is understandably the recipient of the disc's strongest theme, which weaves its way through the tracks. It echoes John Dunbar's theme from Dances with Wolves -- but played on a whistle.

The other predominant theme is that for Lucy's brother Butte, a more accomplished violin-led riff that is integrated into other tracks. The emotional core of this disc is appropriately right in the center of the running order, with the score really coming alive on the discs longest tracks, "Jake's no Buck" and "The Death of Butte" adagio. The impact of the album then wanes until Lucy's theme is resurrected in the final 52-second end titles.

Broughton has restricted the supporting instruments to those that would actually have been found in the time period of the movie (including fiddle, tin whistle and baritone horn). A noble gesture, but this is undermined by the intrusive use of anachronistic synths. And at least some effort was made for authenticity with references to traditional source music "Sweet Betsy from Pike" and "Seeing the Elephant."

Broughton's liner notes describe the score as "stark, sentimental, thoughtful, light-hearted, tragic, aggressive and simple..." Arguably, not every listener will be taken through such a gauntlet of emotions in the brief running time offered by this disc, but at least the composer has provided clues (however broad they may be) as to his intentions. Repeated listening may offer more enlightenment, but it's hard to imagine anyone but the die-hard Broughton fans wanting to pick this up in the first place. It's not a failure by any standards, but the niche market for this type of traditional Little House on the Prairie meets Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman-style whimsy must be on the decline.

Of curiosity value for Broughton completists and western traditionalists, but don't expect it to rock your world.  -- Nick Joy

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