Steiner: The Charge of the Light Brigade (CD review)

William Stromberg, the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. Tribute Film Classics TFC-1005 (2-disc set).

"Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred."

It was Alfred, Lord Tennyson's unfortunate assignment as England's poet laureate to play down one of the worst blunders in military history, the British defeat at Balaklava in 1854, and glorify the event in the poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade." That he did so to such lasting applause is a testament to his ability as a wordsmith of prodigious spin. None of which had much to do with the 1936 motion picture of the same name, its having little to do with Tennyson and even less to do with history. But, oh, what a grand piece of filmmaking it was, and as a pure adventure yarn, it's still hard to beat.  Thank three people in particular for the movie's success: Star Errol Flynn, director Michael Curtiz, and composer Max Steiner.

Executive producer and music preparer Anna Bonn explains in a booklet note that she, restorer John Morgan, and conductor William Stromberg had to reconstruct over half the score for the film using materials from the Warner Bros. catalogues and from some of Steiner's own original sketches, now housed at the Brigham Young University Film Archive. The result for this recording is the entire musical score for the film. It's almost too much of a good thing: The movie itself lasts 115 minutes; the music on this recording lasts over 100 minutes, comprising thirty-six tracks and covering two discs. You want completeness? You got completeness.

People often regard Max Steiner (1888-1971) as the "father of film music," his coming to Hollywood in 1929 and registering his first big hit with King Kong (1933), which is among the very first films to use an extensive, original, scene-specific musical score. After that, Steiner went on to do practically every big picture the Warner Bros. studio made in the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties, finally winding down his career in the early Sixties. His score for The Charge of the Light Brigade is among his finest achievements.

The music varies from the heroic to the purely descriptive, some of it Romantic, most of it underlining the action of key scenes. It begins with reflections of "Rule, Britannia!" and later shades of Tchaikovsky and others. A lovely waltz before the protagonists go off to battle is particularly touching. And so on. Needless to say, the longest segment comes near the end, where we get to the actual charge and its echoes of the 1812 Overture.

Maestro William Stromberg and his Moscow Orchestra play with a kind of demonic fury at times. From their actions, I suppose we can deduce they had a great deal of enthusiasm for the project. They and the music develop to a fevered pitch when the score builds to its final, fateful charge, the rhythms becoming increasingly faster and more intense as the doomed cavalry ride into the "jaws of death." It's a thrilling ride, to say the least.

If there is any drawback to all of this, it's that the music comes in small chunks, so many bits and pieces, that without careful attention it can all appear to merge unceremoniously into a sort of background noise. Is all of the music, in its minute completeness, really necessary?  Well, is anything really necessary for any reason? The album is a labor of love by and for people who enjoy the movie and its music, as well as simply for fans of motion pictures and the way Hollywood used to score them in the old days.

The sound, which Tribute Film Classics recorded in Moscow in 2008, is appropriately spectacular, given the scope of the movie. It's room-filling sound, with a wide stereo spread, good inner definition, and strong transient response, if a tad one-dimensional in terms of stage depth. Bass and treble are well extended, too, with a few healthy low-end wallops and a slew of sparkling highs along the way.

The presentation wraps up with a gorgeously illustrated and thoroughly documented and annotated booklet insert. I can't remember a CD package with more meticulous attention to detail. Even the two CD's are beautifully silk screened with pictures from the movie. Heck, it makes a person want to own the set just as a work of visual art, as well as a work of musical art.

Readers can find out more about Tribute Film Classics at their Web site:  http://www.tributefilmclassics.com/

Readers can find out more about the 1936 movie The Charge of the Light Brigade from my full review of the film at DVDTOWN.com:  http://www.dvdtown.com/review/charge-of-the-light-brigade-the/dvd/4489

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa