Classical Music Review: New Releases

Alex North  × North By North; Journey Into Fear (Legendary Hollywood Series).  Excerpts from Unchained, The Racers, Viva Zapata!, The Bad Seed, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Bachelor Party, The 13th Letter, Stage Struck, I'll Cry Tomorrow, Les Misérables, Desirée; plus 16 cues from Journey Into Fear. Hollywood Studio Orchestra (excerpts) and Sinfonie Orchester Graunke, Munich; conducted by Alex North. Citadel STC 77114 (73'47).

Although composer Henry Brant believes that his friend Alex North (1910-1991), for whom he orchestrated several landmark scores, suffered acutely at the hands of insensitive Hollywood producer/directors, you'd hardly know it from this disc.  True, he may sometimes have been forced to write in the clichés current in the time covered here -- 1951-1977 -- but many composers have, and we don't have to limit it to Hollywood.  Think of how Mozart said something fresh with those current in his time.

The first half of this CD is devoted to twelve scores North wrote from 1951 to 1957, and these one-to-a-picture excerpts highlight his lyric side.  They also tend to follow classic song and dance forms, which North has frequently intensified and extended.  The theme from Unchained (1955) is a perfect example.  North takes a basic ABA structure and frames it with a short poetic introduction and a mini coda: a solo oboe with softly thrumming strings is followed by an intricate bridge and an intense yet contained crescendo.  This isn't your usual one theme with one obvious emotion Hollywood approach.  North's recording of the "Josefa" theme from the Oscar-winning picture Viva Zapata! (1952) is absolutely magical and deeply touching.  His Bachelor Party (Love Theme) (1957) is distinguished by a bare, innocent-sounding opening and a deceptively simple waltz with sliding harmonies.  North's music for Les Misérables (1952) and Desirée (1954) predicts the muted and not so muted anguish that would appear in later scores like Cleopatra (1963) and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).

There's certainly a lot of that in the complete score for Journey Into Fear (1977), which occupies the second half of this CD.  It's stark, intensely dramatic music, and North's approach here is as late 20th century as the twelve other scores were mid 20th century.  The proverbial battery of percussion with brass drives the "Main Theme," its block harmonies not unlike those the composer used to depict Antony's despair in Cleopatra.  A dry pizzicato fugue with muted "off pitch" brass and wind interjections powers "The Search."  And North packs an unbelievable amount of tension into the layered rhythms of the succeeding "Deadly Quest," which sounds like a demonic scherzo.  He also struts his stuff in "Pursuit" and many other cues.

This score highlights North's percussive side, and the striking instrumentation -- strings and high-register winds frequently pitted against low brass and piano -- intensifies its emotional atmosphere.  North's habit of casting his work in his own versions of classical forms gives it integrity, depth, and listenability.  Brant told this author that "Alex's death is a great loss," and those familiar with his music as well as those new to it will surely get an earful here.

A further note: The first half of the CD is from a 1959 Citadel LP, while the latter comes from a Varese Sarabande vinyl release, with six tracks never before released, the whole transferred into 24-bit digital by Tom Null, with informative notes by Tony Thomas and Alain Silver.

-Michael McDonagh
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