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CD Reviews: The Agony and the Ecstasy and The Adventures of Mark Twain

The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) *****


Varèse Sarabande VCL 1104 1032

21 tracks - 62:18

If you were to ask people with some knowledge of film music to name one score composed by Alex North, the near-universal response would be his rejected score to 2001. Even with last year's furor over Gabriel Yared's rejected score for Troy, North's original music for Kubrick's space odyssey remains the best known and most celebrated (in the most ironic sense of that word possible) rejected score of all time. It is a shame that North's name, and consequently his music, are saddled with that stigma. He was a pioneering composer, knowledgeable and able to work in a wide range of musical styles, from modernist atonality to Renaissance dances. Heck, the guy even wrote "Unchained Melody."

Hopefully Varèse's limited deluxe edition of North's score for The Agony and the Ecstasy will erase the 2001 stigma from some people's minds. North wrote some of his most beautiful and direct music for the acclaimed film detailing Michelangelo's struggle to paint the Sistine Chapel. He cleverly took his cue from the film's themes of art versus religion and the nature of inspiration. The score's first cue, "Prelude -- The Mountains of Carrara," opens with a progression of modal chords on organ. It's a bold move, especially considering that the result sounds like early German Protestant music written for a film set in Catholic Italy. However, by the score's end, with "Michelangelo's Magnificent Achievement," North has moved firmly into Catholic musical territory with a contrapuntal, unaccompanied choir. By framing the score with this musical device, North creates a decisive musical-historical commentary. He links Pope Julius II's ideas on art and religion with the heresy that was the Protestant church at the time, and Michelangelo's work with the glory of God as revealed in true Catholic music. It is a telling statement.

Further showing his range, North scattered vernacular pieces from the Renaissance throughout the largely symphonic score. In "The Medici," he places a lively dance melody on recorder over a consort of viols that conjure the grandeur of Florence of the time, and in "The Contessina," he lays out a delightful lute solo. These little touches, planted amongst the vast spaciousness of his orchestration, are the icing on the cake of this fine score.

Even with these riches, Varèse was not content to simply provide the original score for your enjoyment. A few years ago, Jerry Goldsmith recorded The Agony and the Ecstasy with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. It is interesting to compare that recording with North's original and notice how subtle changes like variations in tempi can give new, or at least different life to a score. But one of the reasons Goldsmith recorded the score was that he wrote the music for the film's prologue, a 12-minute piece that commented and built on North's work. That cue is also included on this recording, (as well as on the recent Jerry Goldsmith at 20th Century Fox box set). This album shows two masters working together across time, on one great score. Do yourself a favor and get a hold of this recording before it's gone forever.     -- Andrew Granade

The Adventures of Mark Twain (1944) ****


Naxos 8.557470

29 tracks - 70:49

John Morgan and William Stromberg are two of the great champions of film music, and perhaps the greatest interpreters of classic scores. Their latest, and possibly last, restoration is among their very best. Steiner's The Adventures of Mark Twain is in the tradition of the many americana film scores that he wrote during the period, such as Gone With The Wind, They Died With Their Boots On and Virginia City. And it certainly ranks up there with the best of them, a hidden gem from an all but forgotten film.

The score is largely based on one main theme, for Mark Twain himself, introduced in the "Main Titles." Despite the long running time of the album, this theme never gets tiresome, while showing up in virtually every cue. This is largely due to Steiner's skill as a composer. The theme is presented in a different guise nearly every time, passed from one section of the orchestra to another, from a plaintive violin solo to a resonating tuba as effortlessly as Twain seemingly wrote his own great works. Some of the better variations are found in "Toy Shop," with a music box style rendition of the theme, and "Public Shame," which opens with a threatening and nearly unrecognizable take on the theme. The main theme is brimming with joy and exuberance, and if one is to believe the film and the score, Twain's life was always happy and carefree, with nary a dark chord to be found.

There is a lot of other great material here as well, with Steiner characteristically quoting period songs such as "Oh Susanna," "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," "Dixie" and "My Darling Clementine" -- the latter being either a clever take on Twain's real name, or just appropriate use of music to evoke time and place. You decide! Steiner also provides Twain's wife and sweetheart Livy with a fine theme of her own, but it's used sparingly.

The sound quality ranks amongst the finest digital re-recordings of golden age film scores available, with every shimmering texture from the Moscow Symphony clearly audible, and William Stromberg getting fine performances from his soloists, down to the solo guitar, banjo and occasional whistler. This is such an entertaining album that it makes me sad that Naxos has ended this series of classic film score restorations. Indeed this album, despite being a first pressing and not a re-issue, was not released on the usual Marco Polo label, but instead on the discount Naxos label, and as such only costs about $5. Hopefully Robert Townson or someone else will be able to offer a home to Morgan and Stromberg, so their fine work can continue.     -- Darren MacDonald

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