Classical Music Review: New Releases

Alex North - Cleopatra. Complete original soundtrack recording, the composer conducting the 20th Century-Fox orchestra. Produced by Nick Redman, Robert Townson. Disc 1 (29 tracks): 76'.12". Disc 2 (24 tracks): 74'49". Varese Sarabande 302 066 224 2.

Alex North wrote the music for several other epics besides this one for Fox's legendary 1963 blockbuster, restored, and released this spring on DVD, in its correct aspect ratio, with an accompanying "making of " documentary. Though North preferred to write for small-scaled films where he could connect with the characters, his huge score for Spartacus (1960) is often cited as one of the greatest, if not the greatest scores for ever composed for film. Some of his other epic outings like Dragonslayer (1981), The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964) have yet to receive the attention they deserve. But Cleopatra is thankfully getting a new lease on life. And it confirms what cognoscenti have always known -- North is the greatest composer who ever wrote for film, and the one with the widest and deepest emotional range. His Cleopatra score dramatizes the ups and downs of its queen and the two men most closely connected to her -- Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. North also paints a picture of the first century BC in striking yet carefully mixed colors, but never lets the epic overpower the personal. In fact they're miraculously intertwined.

The splendidly remastered original tapes lets these qualities come through loud and clear, and you can hear sounds inaudible on the original soundtrack LP. The overture, which wasn't on that, is built around the theme of Cleopatra's ambition -- an ostinato, with stunning percussive writing for each orchestral choir, and North follows the jazz practice of letting different instrumental groups solo -- the brass do Ellingtonian trills or "shakes". The theme makes its most famous appearance in "Cleopatra Enters Rome" -- North called it his "Egyptian Bolero" -- in which he uses all seven members of the sax family, "very crazy," he noted, "but a great sound when played without any vibrato."

The composer also probes the emotional lives of all the major characters -- Caesar's physical and mental suffering in "Epilepsy", his barren wife's isolation in "Calpurnia" with its exquisite divided strings and poignant modulations, and Cleopatra's feelings in "Caesar's Departure" -- disembodied winds whirring under interlocking string lines. Her alternately tender and volatile relationship with Antony is expressed in many parts of the score, one of its deepest realizations being the bare, non-harmonized string solos in One Breath Closer"; it also flowers touchingly in "Antony...Wait". North further portrays their relationship in "Interlude" where the counterpoint -- contrary motion -- expresses its difficulty, and it's even there in the spectacularly colored and highly syncopated "Sea Battle" which follows. Recorded complete here it's also a stunning example of North's orchestral mastery.

But he never loses sight of the characters. The strings, for example, play the theme of Cleopatra's ambition at one point as as an ostinato figure repeated 14 times, with harsh dry attacks; and the queen, who's watching the Battle of Actium with her generals from her clifftop perch, also appears later in the accompanimental string figure which is an inversion of her theme. North makes her anguish for her lover palpable by writing it scordatura, the pitches are deliberately mistuned to make it more expressive and dramatic. The composer also recaps some of the party music heard on her barge, where dressed as Venus surrounded by cupids, she awaited Antony as Bacchus, whom he worshipped. North's music here sounds suitably deranged, with feverish ornamented flourishes in brass and percussion.

The picture had a famously troubled production and Darryl Zanuck canned just about everybody -- Fox head Spyros Skouras, originating producer Walter Wanger who'd wanted to shoot it at Aswan, Egypt (his daughter by Joan Bennett, Shelley Wanger, tells me the AMC documentary is "the studio's version of the story"), director Mankiewicz, even Liz Taylor. Though flawed Cleopatra exerts its unique charms. And it's raised to a much higher level by North's delicate, powerful and highly original score. And who but he would write for an orchestra which included a mandolin quartet, flutes, oboes and bassoons in fours, and a percussion section which included sistrum, small dinner bells, tuned cowbells, 5 suspended cymbals (different pitches), 5 suspended triangles (different pitches), 2 small gongs, tubular bells, a gamelan, and a piano sometimes played with the felts removed? Well he does that here, and much else. That one could get away with this much in a company town like Hollywood can only inspire.

-Michael McDonagh
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