Dimitri Tiomkin / David Willcocks

The Film Music of Dimitri Tiomkin

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This well-intentioned Unicorn Records release was a groundbreaking album in its time, presenting new, contemporary recordings of Dimitri Tiomkin's film music at a time when much of the latter, in its original form, was out of print. Sir David Willcocks may have seemed like an odd choice of a conductor, as he is best known for his work with choral music -- but he proves more than adequate to the task presented here. From the opening "Roman Empire Overture" (which includes a major contribution from organist David King), Willcocks and the Royal College of Music Orchestra present the material at hand in a manner than manages to be both spirited and dignified. Indeed, Willcocks' and company's grasp of the bold, raspy, horn-driven sections of "Pax Romana" from Fall of the Roman Empire are something of a relief -- that track tells us that they've avoided the trap that too many "legitimate" orchestras fall into when playing scores like this, of being too genteel and elegant, at the expense of energy and excitement. There's no loss of either here, and unlike some recent re-recordings of classic scores of the Silva Screen label, the players don't act like they're worried that the music might "break" if they push it too hard. Everything here is played spot-on perfect, and one heartily wishes, hearing this recording, that Willcocks would have pursued more recordings of music in this genre. The only flaw, in fact, lies in the choice of one piece of music -- "A President's Country," which is a pastiche of Tiomkin western music (from Giant, Red River, High Noon, Rawhide, etc.). The latter isn't so much a suite as an awkwardly constructed medley assembled by Tiomkin himself, on which the composer's judgment seems to have failed him -- melding the most familiar parts of Red River and Giant do work, indeed, and Duel in the Sun's appearance, although it flows less well around the others, doesn't do violence to the concept; but nothing is explored for much more than a half a minute in terms of possibilities; and when the music from Rawhide, a TV theme that Tiomkin authored, appears, it cheapens everything else here. Willcocks and company do their best with the material, trying to lend sufficient majesty to Rawhide to make it work, but the piece never really recovers. Perhaps it all worked better with a narrator talking over it, as the work was originally conceived, but in this version it's little more than a ten-minute curio amid some much better music. As to the rest, much of the music will be familiar to soundtrack buffs, although many will be hard-pressed to admit that they know the work that makes up the lion's share of this CD, the 22 minutes of music from "Rhapsody of Steel," a score that Tiomkin wrote for a documentary produced by U.S. Steel -- it is some of his more interesting music, avoiding many of the more familiar signature attributes of his feature film work in the course of dramatizing an industrial subject, and it holds up surprisingly well as pure music. In fact, listening to it, one can marvel at Willcocks' skill in this more modernistic brand of music -- the man may have missed several potentially important musical callings (or "sub-callings"), based on the evidence of this album.

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