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Masters and Commanders:
Music from Seafaring Film Classics

Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, Erich Kunzel, conductor

Music by Luigi Boccherini (arr. Richard Tognetti), Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Alfred Newman, Bronislau Kaper, Franz Waxman, Miklos Rozsa, Morton Gould, Elmer Bernstein, Henry Mancini, John Debney, Hans Zimmer, and Klaus Badelt.

 

Review By Joe Milicia
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  The clever title of Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops' recent endeavor could refer to the chosen films' heroes and at least a couple of heroines (Jean Peters' "Anne of the Indies," Geena Davis' Morgan Adams of Cutthroat Island). But it applies equally to the Hollywood masters past and present whose swashbuckling music not only sets the tone but truly commands the screen, especially when the opening credits roll.

The chosen composers, listed above in order of birth, fall into three generations — not counting the late-18th-century Luigi Boccherini, of course. Korngold, Newman, Kaper, Waxman and Rosza were all born between 1897 and 1907; Gould, Bernstein and Mancini between 1913 and 1924; and Debney, Zimmer and Badelt between 1956 and 1968. One can hear a certain evolution in style, but there is remarkable consistency from Captain Blood (1935) to the Pirates of the Caribbean movies (2003, 2006). String arpeggios surge, trumpets swagger, cymbals shimmer throughout most of this music, and quite honestly, almost any of the scores could have worked just as well for a Robin Hood or other land-bound non-"exotic" adventure movie. In any case, Kunzel's selection is varied enough to keep the program interesting. He or his producer starts with Newman, ends with Debney, and separates the two-each Korngold and Waxman selections, presumably for maximum contrast. Still, for all but absolute connoisseurs, much of the music may sound pretty similar—again, with the exception of the Boccherini arrangement and to some extent the Badelt/Zimmer Pirates excerpts.

That Boccherini arrangement is by an Australian violinist and conductor, Richard Tognetti, who tutored Russell Crowe, playing an amateur violinist as well as ship captain in Master and Commander. (Tognetti is mentioned only in Richard E. Rodda's booklet notes — the back of the CD lists only the piece by Boccherini, Los Manolos, from his Nocturnal Music of the Streets of Madrid.) The arrangement, for strings only, doesn't exactly speak of ocean expanses, but does start out moodily and conveys a period flavor, with a dance rhythm that manages to be both stately and agitated.

Of the selections by "Hollywood" composers, Erich Wolfgang Korngold's "Overture" for Captain Blood is among the most distinctive, because of its trickily syncopated opening fanfare. One hears Korngold's classical predecessors more easily in this music than in some others — a touch of Meistersinger here, an echo of Don Juan there — as well as a foreshadowing of John Williams. More conventional but still fun is a "Suite" in one movement from Korngold's 1940 The Sea Hawk, which alternates swagger with moonlight sparkle. More menacing and somber is Bronislau Kaper's "Main Title" for the 1962 (Marlon Brando) version of Mutiny on the Bounty, while Alfred Newman's "Conquest" from Captain from Castile (1948) is appropriately a march, with fanfares of the "alarum" variety scattered about.

Miklos Rosza's portrait of the Mayflower, from Plymouth Adventure (1952), is one of the CD's more satisfying tracks, building steadily from a quiet opening (ship leaving the dock at the first light of dawn?) to increasingly rousing passages (cutting through the waves, sails gloriously unfurled?) and a finale that either steals from or alludes to "Gift to Be Simple," the folk tune used in Appalachian Spring (spying the American shore?). Franz Waxman gives us yet more fanfares and Hollywood-ized Richard Strauss for Anne of the Indies (1951), with what must be music for battling ships, while his 1937 Captains Courageous "Suite" has one passage suggesting a more urbane and modern world, perhaps portraying the ocean liner from which a boy falls and learns to be a man while working on a fishing boat.

Henry Mancini's music for a whale hunt in The White Dawn (1974) starts out gentle and turns vigorous, in a generalized way, but might as well be music for some other "Plymouth Adventure"; certainly there is no hint of the composer of The Pink Panther and "Moon River." Morton Gould isn't usually thought of as a movie composer, but he did contribute the score to the Cinerama/Cinemiracle (i.e., pre-Imax) documentary Windjammer (1958). His "Main Title" music, supplemented with an actual wind-and-wave recording, is nautical but serene, as befits the non-swashbuckling subject.

Two works on Kunzel's program struck me as a little too "generic" — standard stuff, though of course skillfully crafted. One is Elmer Bernstein's music for The Buccaneer (1958), which at least has a pleasant three-quarter-time "noble" theme, with a tender reprise. The other is John Debney's music for Cutthroat Island (1995). Debney acknowledges his debts in his dedication of the score to "Messers Rozsa, Korngold, Steiner and Newman, and to all who have sailed the high seas," but something a bit more distinctive would have been nice.

Finally, we have music from the first two Pirates of the Caribbean movies. The CD credits Klaus Badelt, a protégée/colleague of Hans Zimmer, for the first soundtrack (Curse of the Black Pearl) and Zimmer himself for the second (Dead Man's Chest), though if one may trust the Wikipedia entry for the Curse, this score was composed by Badelt and Zimmer working together, supported by a team of assistants for what was pretty much a rush order after the originally chosen composer left the project. Kunzel gives us about 5 minutes each of Curse and Chest music. The former is thickly orchestrated, mostly vigorous triple-time rhythms; the latter is more lightly textured and cleverly orchestrated, featuring a whimsical "drunken" theme for Jack Sparrow and a hornpipe.

Kunzel and his orchestra certainly provide competent performances, and Telarc provides its usual excellent sound (I heard the hybrid CD only in stereo format). However, I missed the sort of urgent commitment to the music one typically hears in the films themselves, recorded (though in inferior sound by our standards) by full orchestras of brilliant studio professionals. Most of the tracks on this CD seem to say, "Here now is another pops piece played for your enjoyment" rather than "Here we are on the raging (or sparkling) seas with an enemy ship about to board us!"

Rodda's booklet essay provides background on the movies and mentions other movie scores by the various composers, though curiously, he writes about the film Down to the Sea in Ships as if Alfred Newman's score were included on the CD (last-minute omission?), and in the last paragraph he attributes Windjammer to Rosza before giving it, correctly, to Gould in the next sentence.

 

 

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