CD Review: The Film Music of Mischa Spoliansky

The name Mischa Spoliansky may be unfamiliar to many film score fans. It certainly was to me. Chandos recently released THE FILM MUSIC OF MISCHA SPOLIANSKY and the recording is up to the usual Chandos standards.

Spoliansky (1898-1985) was born into a musical family in Bialystok, which was then part of Russia, now in north-eastern Poland. When he was 16, he joined his brother and sister in Berlin, studying at the Stern Conservatory by day and playing in cafes at night. In 1933, the Jewish Spoliansky fled to England and began composing for film, working with Alexander Korda.

The recording feature selections from nine of the composer’s 50-plus film scores, including six premiere recordings. I haven’t seen any of the films, or even heard of them for that matter. But that doesn’t detract from the quality of the music.

The disc gets off to a rousing start with THE GHOST GOES WEST (1935). Directed by René Clair with a script by Pulitzer Prize winner Robert E. Sherwood and Geoffrey Kerr, the film tells the story of an American businessman who buys a Scottish castle and moves it brick by brick to the other side of the Atlantic, ghost and all. The brass writing has a distinctly British flair and the charming waltz-like love theme may have astute listeners thinking “the hills are alive” when they hear it.

The Ghost Goes West – Scott and Mrs. Wyatt
Click Track: THE GHOST GOES WEST – Scott and Mrs. Wyatt

SANDERS OF THE RIVER (1935) starred Paul Robeson in a Nigerian-set adventure story. Though Robeson was displeased with the caricature nature of his role, you can hear echoes of the great bass in these three delightful songs (with lyrics by veteran screenwriter Arthur Wimperis). Mark Coles sings Spoliansky’s haunting melodies with sensitivity and a real feel for the material.

Sanders of the River – Congo Lullaby
Click Track: SANDERS OF THE RIVER – Congo Lullaby

Fans of British film-inspired piano “concertos” like the Warsaw Concerto and the Cornish Rhapsody will find much to enjoy in Spoliansky’s “Voice in the Night.” The music has a proper film noir feel for this story of a son of a Victorian hangman who is driven insane and turns to murder. This work isn’t as fondly remembered as those other commercially released film concertos from that period, but its lack of syrupy romanticism and Roderick Elms’s performance keep it sounding fresh.

Wanted for Murder
Click Track: WANTED FOR MURDER – Voice in the Night

In the comedic THE HAPPIEST DAYS OF YOUR LIFE (1950), the members of an all-girls boarding school are forced to live at a boys-only school due to a bureaucratic error. Spoliansky’s delightful “Gallop” would sound right at home at any pops concert.

The Happiest Days of Your Life
Click Track: THE HAPPIEST DAYS OF YOUR LIFE – Gallop

Other selections include a suite from the 1937 version of KING SOLOMON’S MINES and an organ toccata from Shaw’s SAINT JOAN (1957). Arranger Philip Lane’s liner notes shirk on a discussion of the music but give us excellent backgrounds on these lesser-known films.

Spoliansky doesn’t have a singular voice. You’ll hear British and Russian influences, but it’s best to just sit back and enjoy this welcome overview of Spoliansky’s many styles. Ruman Gamba and the BBC Concert Orchestra perform up to their usual excellent standards and the Chandos engineers give the performances warmth and vibrancy.

Chandos is once again to be commended for rescuing this obscure composer from the sands of time. It should prove a treasure trove for Golden Age fans.

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