Alex North: The Bad Seed, Spartacus, A Streetcar Named Desire ****
Eric Stern conducts the London Symphony Orchestra
Nonesuch Film Series 79446. 17 tracks - 51:59.
Review by Christopher Walsh
As part of Nonesuch Records' recent entry into film music rerecordings, this CD highlighting Alex North's inestimable career is not quite the sum of its parts, yet still is recommended for its many strong stretches of music. The disc ranges from the effectively jagged (The Bad Seed's dissonant yet jaunty main theme) to the glowingly direct (the love theme in Spartacus), spotlighting his famous use of jazz in the process.
The most interesting stretch is an 11-minute suite from The Bad Seed, musically depicting the overall mood ("Main Title"), the seeming innocence of Patty McCormack ("Our Baby"), the revelation of nastiness ("Confession/Details") and the finale ("At It Again"). The suite is both witty, in its use of Au clair de la lune, and archival in that the score has never been properly presented on CD. Following a cue from The Misfits that is so quiet you have to listen carefully to hear its development ("Gay and Roselyn," for the blossoming relationship between Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe) is one of North's personal favorite cues, the rhythmic "Gathering of Forces" from Viva Zapata! The piece's appeal is obvious, and is the first big statement of pure, happy emotion on the disc; I also don't think this cue has made it onto a CD before, either. 13 minutes from A Streetcar Named Desire follow; I am not really qualified to evaluate this score or its various re-recordings, so I suggest referring to Ross Care's article (FSM 65/66/67, Winter 1996) for more details. Still, the performance is consistently strong, whether in the forceful "Main Title," the strutting cues "Four Deuces" and "New Orleans Street," the quieter pieces "Blanche" and "Belle Reve," and the unexpected twists of "Mania."
The problems with this disc are concentrated in the technically challenging score to Spartacus, represented with a 20-minute suite. This goes all over the map from the very start, with an uncertain flucuating tempo on the distinctive "Main Title." The brass, so strong in North's original recording, often disappears, especially the statement when the title "Spartacus" fades up. This is due to either a less forceful performance or, perhaps, the placement of the brass in the orchestral ensemble. (For another example of this problem, compare Elliot Goldenthal's Batman Forever "Main Title and Fanfare" with Joel McNeely's re-recording on [the Varese Sarabande compilations] Hollywood 95 and The Batman Trilogy. The brass cluster when the word "Forever" appears is barely audible in McNeely's version.) A flat piano rendition of the middle section, the march associated with the gladiator army, doesn't help, and the percussion is overplayed in the "Main Title" to boot. Thankfully, however, the suite more successfully plays up the drums in "Draba Fight," which comes across as a more forceful interpretation, not an uncertain performance, of the original cue. (I should admit that I am a sucker for heavy, inventive percussion.) The gentler moments are consistently well-played, as is the two-minute "Vesuvius Camp," one of my personal favorite examples of a happy action rhythm. To sum up, Spartacus starts off a bit on the wrong foot, but recovers.
In the end, this CD is worth having for its Bad Seed suite, "Gathering of Forces," and the informative liner notes by Royal S. Brown, who introduces North to those ignorant of his contribution to film music while explaining the intended thrust of each featured score. Nonesuch is to be commended for tackling the often uncertain market of re-recording music, where fans are particularly ready to jump down throats if things go wrong. Here's to the best of luck in coming discs.