- Composed by Ennio Morricone
- Decca / 2016 / 73m
For those of us who caught the Ennio Morricone bug at some stage in life, seeing him in concert is a religious experience. I’ve had the pleasure several times and each is etched forever into my memory. He seems to have been on a never-ending “world” (mostly but not exclusively Europe) tour for as long as I can remember, even towards the end of his 80s still flying here, there and everywhere to play to huge audiences. The programme has evolved over time, always including The Mission and his Sergio Leone suite, but with other things coming and going, occasionally quite rare pieces making an appearance (on one of his trips to London he memorably included a full 45 minutes of screeching, deeply unpleasant musique concrète to an audience expecting Cinema Paradiso and Once Upon a Time in the America, and I imagine would have been delighted at the horrified reaction it provoked).
There have been numerous album releases of live recordings of various concerts, some of which have been wonderful but all have been dogged to some degree or other by the inevitable issues that come with live-with-audience recordings of orchestral music; Morricone 60 (inaccurately billed as the first Morricone compilation “curated and recorded” by the man himself) is essentially a recording of part of his current concert programme without the audience, ostensibly released to mark the legendary composer’s sixtieth anniversary of making music. According to the booklet the album was recorded in no fewer than seven different cities – I assume it was recorded bit-by-bit in the concert venues themselves, perhaps just recordings of rehearsals, or perhaps done specifically for this album (it isn’t clear). Anyway, it finally offers a way of hearing Morricone’s concert arrangements without audience noise and applause. (Which reminds me of a message read out to the audience before the start of another of his concerts in London, something I’ve never heard in any live concert at any other time – “The audience is requested to only applaud at the designated breaks as indicated in the programme” – a request which was ultimately not complied with.)
All of Morricone’s concerts end with The Mission; this album begins with it. The suite has gone through some changes over the thirty years and countless hundreds of times he has conducted it, with some of the edgier suspense material coming and going; the current incarnation has been stripped down to the “big three”, which are “Gabriel’s Oboe”, “Falls” and “On Earth as it is in Heaven”. “Gabriel’s Oboe” is truly one of the composer’s most extraordinarily beautiful pieces, and it beggars belief that it was written to the random finger placements of Jeremy Irons on the oboe during the film, but even more astonishing is when it is revealed in the suite’s finale that all three of the score’s main themes play in perfect counterpoint to each other (something not even revealed within the film score itself) – the lilting beauty of “Gabriel’s Oboe” itself, the powerful majesty of “Falls” (now given the full treatment in turns by the horns and trumpets) and the religious choral might of “On Earth as it is in Heaven”. While the latter loses the intimate appeal of its original setting when heard like this, it doesn’t half make a rousing finale to a concert, no fewer than two full choirs accompanying the orchestra and as it gets grander and grander, a kind of nirvana is reached. Much subtlety is lost when it’s arranged like this, Morricone having deliberated designed the arrangement to fill even the grandest concert halls (and more recently outdoor venues) – but bugger me, it’s nothing short of stunning. If any finer film music has ever been written, I haven’t heard it.
Following that up is not easy (which is presumably why it’s always at the end of the concerts) but I guess a suite from Sergio Leone westerns is the best way of going about it. Called “The Modernity of Myth in Sergio Leone Cinema” within the concert programmes (I guess something is lost in the translation), the suite remained exactly the same for many years before – very unexpectedly – Morricone added a couple of extra pieces to the beginning in recent times. The first of these is Once Upon a Time in the West‘s “Man with a Harmonica”, which neatly summarises the problem with trying to do these pieces with a symphony orchestra, as enviably as Morricone tries – the originals are real “lightning in a bottle” moments, each a unique piece of sound design and brilliant melody, and while the latter can be recreated just fine, the former can’t. Oddly “Man with a Harmonica” doesn’t even feature the choir so integral to the original (despite a choir being present later in the suite), and the magic isn’t really there, the piece really lacking punch in this form; “The Fortress” from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly fares better since it’s a more traditional composition, the restrained nobility of the piece really coming through (and the choir mercifully present now, along with soprano Susanna Rigacci). The same film’s indelible main theme is next, surely Morricone’s most famous composition, so uniquely brilliant and the effort to capture it with a symphony orchestra (plus guitar and drum kit) is admirable but it produces a completely different feel to the original arrangement. Once Upon a Time in the West‘s “Jill’s Theme” is of course a lot easier to reproduce and it shines, the simplicity of the soaring melody never losing its appeal, Rigacci’s performance more classically operatic than Edda dell’Orso’s original but certainly very fine. “Sean’s Theme” from A Fistful of Dynamite (a film with many alternative titles) is very quirky (even by Morricone standards) with the jaunty, witty “Sean Sean Sean” bookending the stunning melody of the central section. The suite ends – how else? – with “The Ecstasy of Gold”, a crowd-pleaser if ever there were one, again very different in tone to the original but this time I think it works much better (and it’s got me on my feet every time I’ve heard it live); a bonus of hearing it on disc rather than in a concert hall is that Rigacci’s voice is able to be mixed so it can be heard much more clearly.
Following this is a suite from Cinema Paradiso, probably the composer’s most famous score outside The Mission and the Leone scores – first the sweet nostalgia of the main theme, then the outrageously beautiful love theme. It’s five and a half minutes of musical bliss, so perfect for its film, and it was a significant score for Morricone because it marked the beginning of the most fruitful directorial relationship of the latter part of his career, that with Giuseppe Tornatore. “Abolisson” from Queimada is – here I go again – an extraordinary piece of music. The film (a box office disaster starring Marlon Brando) may be rarely viewed any more but Morricone’s music – particularly this piece – has taken on a life of its own. With the orchestra joined again by the choir and by a particularly enthusiastic percussion section, the piece has a kind of religious fervour to it – it’s deceptively simple, the choir literally just repeating “Abolisson” again and again, but it builds in such a rapturous way, it’s an almost hallucinogenic experience. Much bigger and more expansive in this concert arrangement than the modest original, I may be unique amongst Morricone fans for thinking this but I actually prefer this version to the original, and it’s so nice to have a recording of this arrangement with clean sound. Straight on to the “Best of Morricone” playlist.
A truly unlikely pop hit in 1981, ten years after it had been written for the film Maddalena, “Chi Mai” is a chilled-out, completely original mix of baroque classical stylings with a laid-back lounge jazz mood, working surprisingly well in this form (with keyboard, guitars and drum kit accompanying the orchestra) and I’m glad it’s now regularly on the concert programmes. Much (much) less famous is H2S, a staple of the composer’s concerts since he started doing them, but I’ve still no idea what on earth it is other than being able to discern from Wikipedia that it’s a science fiction film from 1969. Anyway, it’s a very light and breezy, classically-styled piece with a lovely little tune and a very breezy spirit. Two pieces from Metti, Una Sera in Cena follow – first the very dated but quite delightful Euro-pop of what is oddly billed as “2nd Theme” (actually the main theme), then “Croce d’Amore” with its memorable rising, ever-growing theme which sees the piano gradually joined by other soloists and then the whole orchestra. It might be nowhere near as famous as other music here, but it’s damn good.
After a strings-only version of “Deborah’s Theme” from Once Upon a Time in America (I’ve never really understood why Morricone doesn’t use the soprano for the piece in concerts – it pushes the heartbreaking melody even further on the soundtrack recording) comes the piece responsible for netting the composer his first competitive Oscar, at the age of 87, The Hateful Eight‘s “Stage Coach to Red Rock”, with its gnarly bassoon, stark melody and typically crazy use of choir. It’s a brilliant piece of film music, indeed it’s a brilliant piece of music, ominously laying the foundations before the tension explodes. Of course, the film also featured several pieces the composer had originally written for The Thing, and the new recordings on this album end with one of them, “Bestiality” – the aggressive string clusters building together into a cacophony of suspense.
Bizarrely, there are four more tracks on the album, culled from their soundtrack recordings (themes from the first two Dollars films, La Califfa and “Death Theme” from The Untouchables) – as brilliant as the music may be, the sound quality of the first two selections is terrible and surely the space could have been better utilised with a few more recordings of the concert arrangements (like the astonishing suite from The Red Tent). Still, that’s a minor complaint against an album full of brilliant music and which makes for a genuinely varied glimpse into the vast body of work of this remarkable composer which does a good job of dipping at least once into many of the different styles he’s employed over the years. Some pieces work better in their concert forms than others, but even the ones that don’t do so well are still very nice to have and the performance of the Czech orchestra under the composer’s baton, along with the choirs and various soloists, is impressive throughout. It’s a shame that the album (even in its deluxe form) doesn’t include any liner notes, but that deluxe version does include a bonus DVD (they still make DVDs?) of the Abbey Road sessions when Morricone recorded The Hateful Eight for vinyl. Morricone 60 is a great compilation, really, even for those who already own numerous recordings of virtually everything on it.)
Rating: **** 1/2