The Film Music of Constant Lambert and Lord Berners

BBC Concert Orchestra/Rumon Gamba (Chandos CHAN10459)

26 May 2008 3.5 stars

Lambert and Berners Film MusicWith this disc, Constant Lambert (1905-1951) and Lord Berners (aka the Rt. Hon. Sir Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 1883-1950) take their place alongside such heavy-weights as Shostakovich, Korngold and Vaughan Williams in Chandos's excellent film music series.

As Philip Lane explains in his booklet note, they don't have enough output in the genre of their own to warrant individual discs but given their close personal ties, make an obvious coupling. Personally they might have been close, but their music, going by what's here at least, is very different. This is due in no small part to the films they were composing for. Lambert has drawn something of a short straw and is represented by a suite from his music for a worthy semi-documentary, Merchant Seamen (1940), and what seems to have been a rather sentimental and drab film of Anna Karenina from 1948, its cast led by Vivien Leigh and Ralph Richardson notwithstanding. Berners is represented by music for three films, Champagne Charlie (1944), Nicholas Nickelby (1947) and Halfway House (1944), which provided scope for him to display a much broader array of styles.

As a composer, Lambert is best known for his ballet music and was for a short time musical director of Sadlers Wells Ballet. His name lives on for many, though, as a result of his book Music Ho!, a coruscating diagnosis of the problems of musical modernity – problems which in his own music he showed fairly little desire to address. Here, I found his music for Merchant Seamen the most enjoyable, displaying as it does a fine ear for orchestration and some original melodic writing. He's highly skilled in his description of a torpedo attack and the relief of those who escape, and the majestic seascape of 'safe convey' is masterfully evoked; I also enjoyed the mixture of jollity and heroism that pervade the final 'march'.

Although Lambert's music for Anna Karenina shows the same level of skill and some melodic flair, I'm afraid I found the thirty-minute suite, as arranged by Philip Lane, far less enjoyable. Too much of the music has the same atmosphere and repeats the same or similar themes, a lot of it characterised by a dreary tendency towards musical swooning and faint-heartedness. I'm sure the music must have fitted the film and been effective enough, but taken out of that context it fails to stand by its own merits.

It's something of a relief, after the Anna Karenina, to have the boisterous sauciness that characterises the song, 'Come on Algernon', and 'Polka' from Berner's music for Champagne Charlie. Mary Carewe has a delightful glint in her eye in the first while both benefit from Lane's lively orchestrations. The Suite from Nicholas Nickelby (1947) provides a quick-fire series of vignettes, its ten minutes used to portray a dozen characters and situations with verve and skill.

The most substantial contribution by Berners is his Suite from The Halfway House (1944). The plot follows an array of characters at the eponymous guest house, where it finally becomes apparent the host and his daughter are not of this world. In the parlance of modern day film trailers, there is a certain amount of 'mild peril' here that is portrayed excellently in the introduction. Some of the other numbers accompany the introduction of several of the characters: a conductor in ill health leads a furious concert; a young girl stages a mock drowning to get the attention of her parents (flailing arms and swirling currents described with particular skill by Berners); there's a lively bicycle chase down a hill featuring two more of the characters, a black marketeer and embezzler. The 'séance waltz', spookily orchestrated by Lane (it's originally played on the piano in the film) is a highlight and the final apotheosis, with the women of The Joyful Company of Singers adding to the atmosphere of mystery, is rousing.

Throughout the disc, Rumon Gamba procures extremely fine performances from the BBC Concert Orchestra and Chandos's engineering is excellent, as one has come to expect. The booklet includes synopses of the film plots and is generously illustrated with photographs. Not all the music on this disc is of the highest quality but this is still a valuable addition to the series.

By Hugo Shirley