Rumon Gamba

The Film Music of Constant Lambert & Lord Berners

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After producing manifold high-quality volumes on British film music composers ranging from Addinsell to Vaughan Williams, Chandos Movies turns its attention to two prominent English composers whose individual output for film doesn't amount to enough to fill a whole CD: Constant Lambert and Lord Berners. These two were friends, and this is more than a little unusual, as you couldn't imagine personalities more dissimilar. Lambert, the ex-"angry young man" who settled into a position as conductor of the Sadler-Wells ballet company without conquering his addiction to alcohol, and Berners, the contrite, noble, and dapper diplomat who was nevertheless in his off-hours something of an artistic renaissance man: painter, novelist, and composer. What the two also share in this context is that their film music all dates to their last years of activity, a period when both composers -- who had in their youth enthusiastically embraced modernistic styles -- had moved into more conventional methods of expression while retaining certain aspects of modern style to spice up the program.

Lambert's two film scores are for the wartime documentary film Merchant Seamen (1940) and for Alexander Korda's feature film adaptation of Anna Karenina (1948) starring Vivien Leigh. Lambert wrote a considerable amount of valuable film music criticism and was certainly knowledgeable about the possibilities of film scoring. Therefore, one wonders why he wrote such conservative scores; parts of Anna Karenina could almost pass for one of Herbert Stothart's workmanlike scores for MGM, and perhaps that was what Korda wanted, as MGM had already so effectively featured Greta Garbo in the role Leigh was to portray. Merchant Seamen is better; it even contains a little of the minimalistic patterning found in some of Lambert's early ballets in the cue entitled "Attack," though "Safe Convoy" contains some of the most facile and ingratiating music from Lambert's pen, and this is not meant in a positive way.

Lord Berners was a little luckier in that two of the three projects for which he worked were distinguished outings, and all three were produced by Alberto Calvacanti's unit. Calvacanti was an especially musically sensitive producer/director who also worked with William Walton and Maurice Jaubert, among others. Champagne Charlie (1944) was a much loved nostalgia trip about the English Music Hall to which Lord Berners contributed a couple of minor numbers. The "Polka" was composed earlier and fares a bit better in its original piano version; as such it is one of Lord Berners' most famous pieces. The score for Basil Dearden and Calvacanti's low-key ghost story The Halfway House (1944) is easily the best thing on this album; the project stirs Lord Berners to some very inspired and exciting flights of fancy, especially in the "Drowning Scene." By general agreement, Irving's 1947 adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby is not considered among the most successful of the five feature film and TV adaptations of Dickens' novel, and here -- like in Champagne Charlie -- Lord Berners turned to the heritage of the English Music Hall and operetta for inspiration. While it doesn't exactly fall flat, it doesn't sparkle; this is some of the last music written by Lord Berners.

As usual in this series, Chandos' sound is terrific and multidimensional, while Rumon Gamba delivers a careful and loving rendering of the music with the BBC Concert Orchestra. Both Lambert and Berners worked extensively in ballet, and one point where they differ is that Lambert scored for film as if it was film, whereas Lord Berners scored for film as if it was another ballet. Yet one more common thread twixt the two of them is that neither produced their best music for the medium.

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