Brian EASDALE (1909-1995) The Red Shoes - Ballet (1948) Kew Gardens - Suite for Chamber Orchestra (1936) Black Narcissus - Suite for Chorus and Orchestra (1947) The Battle of the River Plate - Prelude and March for Orchestra (1956) Adventure On! - Suite for Orchestra - A musical progress for Sir John Barbirolli and the Hallé Orchestra (1957) Gone to Earth - Suite for Chorus and Orchestra (1950) BBC National Chorus of Wales/Adrian Partington BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Rumon Gamba Cynthia Millar (ondes martenot) (Red Shoes) CHANDOS CHAN10636
As a teenager I was much more impressed by The Battle of the River Plate than with The Red Shoes. In those days television regularly showed old black-and-white films on the three channels then available. Certainly the high-paced action of John Gregson, Anthony Quayle and Patrick Macnee was infinitely preferable to Moira Shearer and Leonide Massine in a movie about ‘ballet.’ As a youngster I wanted to join the Navy: I never wanted to be a ballet dancer. However, I must confess that I do not recall the music as being an integral part of either these films.
Life moves on: I never did join the Navy: however I have come to enjoy ballet. With the advent of video and DVD it is possible to watch these two films any time I choose. Ever since discovering that Alan Rawsthorne wrote the music for The Cruel Sea I have read the film credits looking to see who the composer of the score was. As an aside, the number of times British films involve Muir Mathieson is unbelievable. It was only quite recently I noticed that Brian Easdale had written the score for The Red Shoes.
It is no part of a review of film music to discuss the plots and sub-plots of the film, if for no other reason than many listeners may not have seen the movie. Plot spoilers are not helpful. However four things need to be said about the score to The Red Shoes.
Firstly, this is superb music that should be in the repertoire of all orchestras alongside British ballet scores by Lord Berners, Constant Lambert and William Walton. Secondly the score as realised by John Wilson is actually quite short: some of the individual elements are between one and two minutes long. Yet there is a lot of musical activity packed into these nine sections. Thirdly it is possible to play ‘hunt the influence’ here to one’s heart’s content. Apart from the three above-mentioned composers one can detect the sound-world of Arthur Bliss, Maurice Ravel and Arnold Bax. However this is no criticism. These were all composers of ballet masterworks and would surely have been the stylistic model of any composer writing a film score about a troupe of ballet dancers.
Finally, I have to make the only negative comment about this entire CD. I wish Easdale had not used the ondes martenot. It is an instrument that (for me) gives any music a kind of ‘Star Trek’ feel that is unwarranted. I know that mine will probably be a minority view on this issue. Yet, it does not detract too much from what is a sumptuous and well ordered piece of music. The mood is typically romantic with a sinister undertow. The orchestration (ondes martenot notwithstanding) is totally brilliant.
One of my discoveries of 2011 has been the short suite based on music derived from the film Secrets of Kew Gardens. This was one of Brian Easdale’s earliest contributions to the world of film music. This documentary charts the course of the seasons in the context of the work at the Royal Botanical Gardens. Philip Lane has taken the original score which was for chamber ensemble and has slightly expanded the orchestration. The Suite is in four movements - an Introduction and Allegro, Spring Flowers, Summer Sequence and a Finale. The music is extremely attractive albeit short - it all seems to be over far too soon. Easdale has managed to create an impressionistic mood that is wholly English - without falling into Delian clichés. This is especially evident in the shimmering Summer Sequence. Neither has he succumbed to the temptation of folk-song. This short suite is a superb standalone miniature that portrays one of the most magical places in London with equally imaginative and magical music.
Black Narcissus is not a film I would choose to watch, although I concede that it was something of a hit when it appeared on screens in 1947. I guess stories about ‘religious’ orders in faraway locations struggling with their sexuality is just not my bag. However the music is a totally different matter. The present suite has been realised for chorus and orchestra and presents music taken from a number of key scenes from the film. Easdale has created an exquisite score that reflects the vastness and remoteness of the Himalayas where the action is largely set. However two of the movements are actually flashbacks to a time before one of the leading protagonists took holy orders. The choral music in the Irish Song certainly pushes towards an almost John Tavener-esque sound-world. It is heart-breakingly beautiful. The interlude depicting Sister Ruth and Mr. Dean is reflective. I did love the wild Hunting Song which once again looks back to days spent in Ireland. This is impressive choral writing of an almost Orffian kind! The final ‘death scene’ is scary, but ultimately effective music. Stylistically this music is an Aladdin’s cave of allusion. The Editor notices Bax, Delius and Ravel. One could add a fair few more. However, Easdale never writes pastiche or parodies. Certainly it could have been a dangerous temptation to have written some tacky music in the style of Albert Ketèlbey’s In a Monastery Garden or In a Chinese Garden. For the time it was composed, this was an advanced score: it well deserves it place on this CD.
Although I accept that the music for The Battle of the River Plate is not quite as impressive as Walton’s music for The Battle of Britain, I find something quite dark and menacing in both the Prelude and the March that is perhaps less romantically overblown but has a touch of seriousness that is entirely appropriate to the story the Graf Spee and its scuttling. Great stuff!
The Suite from Adventure On! is an absolute treat. This is an impressionistic trip around the world that is both satisfying and totally evocative of the places visited - without ever becoming ‘kitsch’. Phillip Lane in the liner-notes likens this work to Jacques Ibert’s fine orchestral work Escales. Its origins lay in a musical score for a documentary about Massey Ferguson tractors. This trade-film naturally showed their machines in operation in all corners of the world. Easdale recycled some of this music and created a suite which was subtitled ‘A musical progress for Sir John Barbirolli and the Halle Orchestra’. Places taken in on the tour include Africa, Aden, India and a final progress from Malaya to Fiji. This is a long (20 minutes) work that at times become almost symphonic in its scale and scope: the orchestration is vivid and sensitive. All in all, this is a wonderful discovery.
Perhaps it is better to lay the rather trivial plot of the film Gone to Earth aside when listening to the suite derived from the score. This is not always easy music to listen to. For example The Hunt of the Death Pack is not a bucolic idyll of huntsmen dressed in pink on a jolly. It is a man or woman being chased to a literal death. Certainly the choral writing in this piece at times nods towards a minimalistic mood which is certainly surprising for a score written in 1950! There is a little bit of sweetness and light in this music, yet most of it is deep, profound and troubled. Listening to this suite makes me wish that Easdale had contributed a symphony to the repertoire. There is something inherently beautiful (in spite of its troublesome nature) about much of this music that seems to defy analysis and probably transcends the film for which it was originally composed.
Like every other CD in the Chandos Film Music series, the quality of production is excellent. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales plays these scores with huge enthusiasm under conductor Rumon Gamba. The programme notes are helpful, in spite of some hard-to-read white text superimposed on grey photographs. However, the selection of historical photographs of the composer and also a number of stills from the films make this an attractive all-round production. Finally, all British music enthusiasts owe a tremendous debt to Philip Lane for his sterling work in producing performing editions of these film scores. Without his sheer hard work most of this music would go unheard, except on rare re-runs of these films on TV or in DVD players. However, John Wilson must also be congratulated on preparing the score for The Red Shoes. All in all, this is a tremendous achievement.
And finally, what of Manchester-born Brian Easdale (1909-1995)? It would be easy to assume that he was merely a film-music composer. Yet his catalogue covers a wide range of interesting and tantalising pieces. There are the three operas, Rapunzel, The Corn King and The Sleeping Children. Certainly his orchestral music could make an attractive Dutton Epoch release and would include Five Pieces for Orchestra, Six Poems and Tone Poem. And then there is the Concerto Lyrico for piano and orchestra. There are also chamber works, songs, organ and piano pieces. Finally, one major desideratum must be the Missa Coventriensis.
This present excellent CD must surely act as a catalyst for a deeper exploration of Easdale’s music.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.