The early career of Jerry Goldsmith, once he made the jump from television to films, seemed to know no bounds. Not only did he get a chance to score some high profile films and within varied genres but also worked on almost half a dozen each year and seemed to bring with him inexhaustible energy and invention to each one of them. In 1966 the composer scored no less than 6 films and wrote music for two different television shows, which yielded such classics as The Sand Pebbles, Gunsmoke and the First World War aviation spectacle The Blue Max.
The Blue Max is a perennial Goldsmith fan favourite and the music’s popularity and demand is evidenced by the numerous releases and re-releases of this score over the years, most recently in 2014 by the La-La Land Records, which quickly sold out like the previous editions. And now 2016 sees a re-recording of the complete score. In the last few years Tadlow and its producer James Fitzpatrick (sometimes in collaboration with the Prometheus Records) have done a series of Goldsmith re-recordings with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Nic Raine and the team has proved, that they can capture Goldsmith’s particular sound very well. The Salamander, The Hour of the Gun and the epic television score QB VII are all exemplary recordings that offer faithful but dynamic new interpretations of the classics and I am happy to say that The Blue Max is among their finest.
The film directed by John Guillermin is set during the Great War and recounts the story of an ambitious German infantryman Bruno Stachel (George Peppard) who methodically makes his way out of the trenches and to the prestigious German Imperial Air Service on his ruthless way fame and fortune. He becomes entangled in the machinations of a self-serving general (James Mason) and his adultering wife Kaeti (Ursula Andress), the former wishing to make Stachel a public hero and exploit that status for his own ends and the latter engaging in an illicit affair with the young and handsome pilot for pure pleasure. While this triangle forms the personal drama of the film along with dire contest with another pilot for fame and glory and in the end leads Stachel to his demise, the exhilarating flying sequences, some of the finest ever filmed, take the centre stage in the movie. The story itself was rife with musico-dramatic opportunities and since much of these flying sequences unfolded without much dialogue or sound effects they offered the composer a particularly attractive prospect.
Goldsmith obviously exploited this chance to the maximum musical effect and his prowess show mostly clearly in the intelligent use of his inspired trio of themes, the thrilling and soaring Blue Max theme, the bittersweet and gossamer delicate love theme and the surprisingly moody and sombre theme for the protagonist Stachel, that all share common musical roots but the composer takes them each to entirely different direction while expertly combining and setting them against one another. And while there is fine thoughtfulness in the construction of the score it never overrides the emotional impact of the music, that on one hand captures the sheer majesty of flight, the soaring exhilaration of it and on the other the vicious and grueling horror of war by application of the severe classical musical form of passacaglia that dominates the major action set pieces.
Highlights come thick and fast with this one beginning with the tone setting ‘Main Title’ that soars with weightless upper registers of the orchestra propelling the expansive main theme to flight while the bassline grows only gradually to support it, the piece achieving a mightily courageous sound in the process. Fantastic stuff. ‘The New Arrival’ introduces Stachel’s theme in almost funereal guise as brass intone the theme over tread of the field drum, while the following piece ‘A Toast to Bruno (aka A Pretty Medal)’ sees it take a quiet thoughtful tone and alternating with the main theme.
But it is not all elation of flight and danger of fight in this score as the composer also adds a dose of romance to the proceedings with the love theme that offers a counterbalance to the thunderous flying music and the often brutal battle material and comes in at, you guessed it, the track called ‘Love Theme’, where Stachel’s slightly morose theme gives way to gorgeously performed piano reading of the love theme melody, certainly one of Goldsmith’s most involved pieces of such nature in its fragile yearning which is here complemented by the fine recording.
A bit of humour is sprinkled into the mix as well with ‘A Small Favour – A Lonely Hero’ where the composer demonstrates the versatility of his heroic main theme by spinning a jocose waltz variation for solo violin from it that adds a touch of irony and playfulness to Stachel’s character. The ethereal love theme however soon counters the levity with a combination of romance and melancholy further showcasing the fine melodic material now taken up by silken strings. The same jocund tone is reprised in ‘Nothing Is Needed – Kaeti Has a Plan’ but here the love theme and the Blue Max theme intermingle chillingly in a telling fashion as Stachel coldly spurns the countess.
Goldsmith’s action writing takes two guises, the beautifully exciting flying music, which weaves the main theme through several glorious variations during the score and the dark, driving and pulse pounding action setpieces that capture the aerial exploits of the dangerous kind and the vicious violence of war. At the beginning of the album ‘The Balloon – First Blood – First Victory’ gives a taste of things to come, the fine recording combining the original opening of the piece with the revised version, where first the chime supported main theme takes flight with more dramatic weight before a busier and tremendously exciting version for bustling strings, woodwinds and brass is presented complete with wind machine to give it extra lift. And that is does! Here Goldsmith also introduces the first traces of the constantly repeated and developed dark passacaglia figures that inform the dangers of flight and war in the action setpieces. ‘The Rivals – Finale of Part 1’ and ‘Prelude To Part 2’ both showcase the main theme at its most heroic while ‘The Bridge’ weaves mounting tension through rhythmic interjections from the strings and woodwinds to the majestic theme building to great emotional heights.
And two absolute highlights of the score are the two lengthy battle sequences where Goldsmith’s music can speak uninhibited by the dialogue and sound effects (although considerable amount of the music was dialled out in the film). On the album we can however hear the music in all its magnificence. This is stuff that sends your blood racing with excitement and in his usual style Goldsmith constructs the piece with such care, the musical narrative having a clear beginning, middle and end, the setpieces substantial pieces of music in their own right. The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra’s fine performance captures both the rousing martial heroism and the relentless sense of danger and the sheer drive of the music to near perfection, the brass giving a particularly fine performance, both in its burnished victorious sheen and the gritty abrasive aggression.
‘The Attack’ roars to life with bold and brassy statement of the Blue Max theme full of guts and glory but soon the composer’s grim and sharp passacaglia figures on rhythmic strings rise in opposition with brass snarling angrily in support and begin a furious death march. As the piece develops the Blue Max theme and Stachel theme are cleverly used as counter lines to the passacaglia figures and perilously teetering woodwind cascades and finally the piece builds to a triumphant roaring conclusion on the Blue Max theme in spectacular fashion. And if ‘The Attack’ represented victorious Stachel then the even lengthier ‘The Retreat’ surely sees him in defeat. The piece opens with the fully developed war passacaglia, which becomes the dominating elements of the track as it sinks to the deepest registers of the ensemble. The growling brass, steady steely march of the snare drum and relentless rhythmic bursts from the orchestra ratchet up the tension many fold as they drive home the violence and brutality of the battle and Stachel and the Blue Max theme both struggle under the yoke of the oppressive rhythms as the piece inexorably draws to a thematically complex, dramatically potent and explosive finale.
As the story winds to its conclusion the composer conveys the dark end of Stachel’s journey with the grim funereal take on his theme in ‘Stachel’s Last Flight’ which presages doom in no uncertain terms in heavy mournful tones but the ‘End Title’ finally sees a resigned strain of the Blue Max theme climbing ever higher to a grand and noble redemptive crescendo before serene and the poignant reading of the material in ‘Finale’ perfectly rounds out the whole experience.
This score is without a doubt one of the absolute highlights of Goldsmith’s career, a true show of skill from the young hungry composer. What he wrote is simply a superbly dramatic, gripping, thrilling and layered work which stands proudly on its own. I am thrilled to say that the performance of the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra is both articulate and resounding and captures the style and spirit of Goldsmith’s music with admirable skill just like its predecessors in Tadlow’s line of re-recordings. The sound quality is excellent and it was a true joy to finally hear this magnificent music captured by the modern recording techniques. It soars and thunders, whispers and sighs with vibrant dynamism. It’s a dream come true for any Goldsmith and Silver Age enthusiast.
The score, which runs little under an hour, flies past (pardon the pun) in no time and is a tremendously exciting experience but in addition the producer Fitzpatrick has included an extra disc’s worth of concert suites on the release. Almost akin to an 80 minute Goldsmith concert, the second disc continuing the theme of The Blue Max contains music largely culled from the maestro’s numerous war films such as Patton, MacArthur, Inchon and The Sand Pebbles but the producer managed to include a couple of nice surprises such as the lengthy The Mummy Suite and an three movement suite from Omen III the Final Conflict, all finely performed by the Prague players. I can’t recommend this album enough. It is classic Goldsmith, recorded and performed faithfully and even if you own a previous version of the score, I strongly urge you to get this one. If you have happened to miss The Blue Max entirely, this version is not a bad place to start.
The Blue Max is out now from Tadlow