Notes and Editorial Reviews
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Naxos Film Music Classic Series
...the best material here is Steiner’s own, graced by Kaun arrangements that are as lush and colorful as anything we’d associate with Korngold.
Although he was born in Vienna and had a thoroughly European training, Max Steiner developed a knack for writing film music with a distinctly American sound. True, much of that relied on quotations of, or fleeting allusions to, American folk tunes rather than some inherent American sensibility, but he made the technique work well within his
essentially Wagnerian-Mahlerian concept of composition for film. A couple of years after scoring Gone with the Wind, Steiner was assigned a movie on an equally American subject: The Adventures of Mark Twain, starring Fredric March. The finished project remained in the can for two years, finally released in 1944 as a wartime morale booster. I’ve never seen the movie and, by all accounts, I haven’t missed much; it’s reportedly superficial and episodic. Steiner’s score, in contrast, certainly has held up over the years, and it’s the latest subject of Naxos’s “Film Music Classics” series.
As restored by John Morgan, the music stretches over 70 minutes, and that’s not by any means the full score; Morgan has eliminated about half an hour of repetitions and other material he didn’t think would hold up for home listening. In truth, he could have shaved off a lot more. Steiner’s underscoring for “Riverboat in Fog,” for example, was undoubtedly quite effective in the context of the film, but isolated from the images, it seems like just an endless series of atmospheric arpeggios. There’s also quite a bit of the “Mickey-Mousing” common in film music of the time—when something on screen falls, so does the melodic line.
But Steiner, working with orchestrator Bernhard Kaun (rather than his usual associate, Hugo Friedhofer), otherwise produced a great deal of beguiling music. There are quotations here and there, some subtle (“Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen”), some inevitable (“Clementine” for a California Gold Rush sequence), some predictable (“Dixie” and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” for Civil War scenes). But the best material here is Steiner’s own, graced by Kaun arrangements that are as lush and colorful as anything we’d associate with Korngold. True, there isn’t much to the broad main theme, a sequence that imitates a spiritual without really going anywhere, but the melody becomes an instantly recognizable and uncomplicated leitmotif that weaves in and out of the otherwise inventive score. The best tune is the bumptious “Pirates,” a gently comic piece featuring bassoon; it reappears a couple of times in the course of the score, at one point in a magical, whimsical setting that would fit right into a Harry Potter movie. (This tells you as much about John Williams as it does Steiner.) There’s also a little chuckling motif that never sounds cloying, and a nice string theme associated with Twain’s love interest, and not too far removed from Gone with the Wind.
I suspect that love theme would have been played with more portamento by a 1940s studio orchestra than it is by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra under William Stromberg. But that’s the only reservation I have about this loving, enthusiastic performance. The orchestra is certainly in better shape and is better recorded than in the dreary Malipiero series it did for Naxos in the early 1990s. On the subject of the recording, the 5.0 SACD surround-sound sonics are gorgeous, full, and fairly close; the only problem is that the woodwind solos sometimes seem unnaturally spotlit.
The first time I listened to this disc I found it interesting; the second time, I was enthralled; the third time, I began to grow impatient with some of the less engaging passages of underscoring. At its best, this nearly seamless presentation of the cues resembles a Strauss tone poem, perhaps An Alpine Symphony, in its recurring motifs, rich scoring, and wide expressive range. It’s well worth your modest financial risk.
James Reel, FANFARE
Works on This Recording
The Adventures of Mark Twain by Max Steiner
William T. Stromberg
Moscow Symphony Orchestra,
Moscow Symphony Choir
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1944; USA
Notes: The score used for this recording was reconstucted by John Morgan.
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