This recording was first reported about on the Internet in 2002, and finally showed up in the waning weeks of 2003. Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953) came to film music relatively late, at age 59, and produced two soundtracks during the final 11 years of his life. Though he had intended to retire at the outset of the 1940s, Bax found new stimulus from a request from Muir Mathieson, the conductor and movie music director, to write the score for the patriotic documentary short Malta, GC, which told of the island's resistance to Axis air attacks during the first three years of World War II. Bax had spent most of his life writing for the concert hall and found the project not to his liking -- it was music generated solely by an outside source of inspiration, and though in the end he turned in a much-loved score, he never took to film-related work in the manner of his decade-older contemporary Ralph Vaughan Williams (who, in his seventies, generated a whole symphony -- his seventh -- inspired by the subject behind a film assignment). In 1947, Bax was again engaged to do a soundtrack, this time for David Lean's Oliver Twist -- this proved to be his magnum opus in the genre, an hour's worth of finely crafted, lively, clever, and almost all memorable music. Ironically, because of a two-year delay in releasing the movie in America and heavy cuts made in the movie when it did finally open (all because of Alec Guinness' portrayal of Fagin), audiences in the United States didn't get to hear Bax's music (or see the movie) intact until the 1970s. This CD marks the first presentation of Bax's complete composition for Oliver Twist, rescued from the actual movie recordings and the concert suite assembled by Mathieson -- this is film music written on a level that American soundtrack music seldom ever approached, closer in spirit to Bax's concert works than to any plain description of the screen action.
With the string harmonics, the tumultuous wind and reed writing, and the running scales on the strings for The Storm, listeners are plunged into a body of music that stands on its own. There are moments in which certain visuals from the movie do come to mind, such as the pompous march associated with Mr. Bumble in Oliver Asks for More; Oliver Meets the Artful Dodger, with its music evoking the majesty and the sad irony-laced visuals of London's rotting tenements with St. Paul's Cathedral in the background; Fagin's Romp, a delightfully bizarre burlesque of the fast movement from Mahler's Symphony No. 9, depicting the thieves' mentor's antics as a teacher (this was a section long missing, along with its film sequence, from American prints); and The Chase, with its running scales for the strings (and ultimately most of the rest of the orchestra) in which Oliver is pursued by the mob of people after one of Fagin's boys botches a pickpocketing attempt. But just as often, the score, including such pieces as Oliver at Mr. Brownlow's House, Oliver at Play, and The Portrait, could easily have come out of the composer's symphonic poems or concerti; the entire body of work is a very full, richly melodic, and finely orchestrated feast for the ear. The second half of Bax's score for Malta, GC is also represented, and all of the music is worthwhile. The conducting of the BBC Philharmonic by Rumon Gamba is generally to be praised for bringing out the detail and richness of the score, though it seems that Gamba also pushes the tempos a little too fast -- this is music, especially in Fagin's Romp, that ought to be allowed to breathe a bit, and the conductor seems to have pushed some of the score faster than the movie ever demanded. Still, the playing is impeccable, and anyone who enjoys classic orchestral soundtrack music will have to own this CD. The annotation is very thorough as well, though it fails to explain how Bax was persuaded, after his experience with the documentary, to do the feature film.