CD Review: Spartacus

Ever since the beginning of message boards, there have been film music threads about SPARTACUS. With every new announcement of upcoming CDs, someone would invariably (and idiotically) say, “I bet it’s SPARTACUS!” The holy grail of a complete SPARTACUS remained maddeningly elusive for years. But with Alex North’s 100th birthday celebration this year and the 50th anniversary of the film, the stars aligned and our prayers have been answered. Forget BACK TO THE FUTURE, an expanded STAR TREK II or any of the other recent holy grail releases. Like the slave uprising portrayed in the film, SPARTACUS slays them all with a superb package from Varèse Sarabande.

As a rabid fan of both the score and the composer, I received the elegant box set with some trepidation. I was almost afraid to open it. The possibilities for a major letdown were many. Would the overall package live up to my hopes and dreams? Well, for all you fans of the score, throw away your old MCA CD with its brittle compressed sound or use it as a coaster because you won’t need it anymore.

There is no disputing the quality of North’s score and its classic standing is entirely justified. The film was a massive undertaking that occupied North for over a year and he delivered arguably his greatest score. With his use of atonality for the brutality of slavery and unique instrumentation, North brought the epic film score into the 20th Century. And by interpreting “the past in terms of the present,” the music transforms this historical Roman story into something immediate and contemporary. The score sounds just as fresh and exciting as it did 50 years ago, and SPARTACUS is Alex North at the peak of his creative powers.

Everyone will listen to SPARTACUS in a different manner. I chose to start at the very beginning and proceed numerically through the various discs. The first CD contains all the surviving stereo tracks of the score. From the opening fanfare of the “Overture,” these tracks sound glorious. All of the original LP tracks are included on this disc plus another 25+ minutes of new material. It’s a shame that the entire score doesn’t survive in stereo but that doesn’t detract from the thrill of having even these tracks.

Spartacus CD
“Metapontum Triumph”
“Love Sequence”
Diego Navarro

Discs 2 and 3 present the entire score in mono. After listening to the stereo tracks, it takes a bit of ear adjustment to feel comfortable with the more muffled quality of mono. But it doesn’t last long (and only after immediately listening to the stereo portions) and only the most foolish audiophile will complain. Every film score fan worth his salt should thank the musical gods that the complete score exists in any form at all. To hear all this new music separated from the film is truly a dream come true. With a running time of over two hours, nothing shows off the genius of North’s talent better than these two discs. It’s a thrilling, emotionally exhausting two hours.

Completists will go nuts over disc 4 which presents alternate and preliminary cues. Even though I cherish having every note of most film scores, I usually skip these sections. Not this time. The quality of North’s score is so good that comparing these other versions of many of the score’s classic cues is a fascinating journey into the inner workings of North’s compositional process.

The score’s love theme is one of North’s loveliest compositions. My memory may be faulty after all these years, but I seem to remember that it was this theme in particular that started me on the road to discovering North’s canon. Discs 5 and 6 are separated on their own as a celebration of that theme. With its simple three-note motif and classical structure, the theme has particularly inspired numerous jazz musicians over the years. Townson uses those classic interpretations (by the likes of Bill Evans, The Ramsey Lewis Trio and even Carlos Santana) as the nucleus of a unique double album–Spartacus: Love Theme and Variations–devoted to this single theme, as interpreted by a number of contemporary film composers.

On first listen I wished for a bit more variety in the interpretations and orchestrations. But upon subsequent listens (and under a pair of headphones), the subtleties of the composers’ vision came through with more clarity. Obviously, not every interpretation will appeal to every listener, but they are all to be applauded for creating their own stamp on another composer’s work.

My favorites were the tracks that went out on a limb a bit more. Of the new jazz interpretations, those by Mark Isham and Lalo Schifrin go the furthest to showcase their unique jazz stylings. John Debney showcases a breathtaking cello duet and Brian Tyler brings the theme firmly into the realm of contemporary film scoring. There are a couple of clarinet renditions by Richard Stoltzman and John Neufeld/Marty Krystall that I wish had been around back in my performing days. But my favorites interprations are Alexandre Desplat’s unique flute choir and Diego Navarro’s infectious tango. The style of the cover art like an old ’60s Blue Note LP from the period encases this thoroughly enjoyable collection with wit and wink to the period.

Rounding out the set is a 96-minute feature DVD documentary on the composer and the score, featuring interviews with Alexandre Desplat, Mark Isham, David Newman, Lalo Schifrin, Robert Townson, Brian Tyler, John Williams and Christopher Young. Also included are two bonus features of Isham and Navarro recording their own Spartacus Love Theme variations. While it’s nice to hear from all of these composers (Desplat and Williams come off best), the DVD could have been edited a bit more. There is a lot of repetition and some graphics and musical samples might have added to the overall presentation. But I respect Townson’s decision to have only talking heads. Again, the choice of making the cover art look like an old Columbia Masterworks LP only adds to the enjoyment of the packaging.

The accompanying 168-page book is chock full of information about the film, the score and North’s career. The book also supplies a track-by-track analysis of the complete score on discs 2 and 3, as well as the alternate and preliminary cues on disc 4. Obviously a lot of energy, time and research went into compiling the book. Still, a more ruthless editor would have been welcome and I could have done without the excessive use of exclamation points. Not all of the exclaimed statements warrant the punctuation. But these are minor quibbles that probably only anal retentive editors like me will notice, and maybe not even then.

Townson credits himself as art director, but I have no doubt that credited artist Matthew Joseph Peak and regular Varèse Sarabande art director Bill Pitzonka no doubt deserve to share in the accolades for the beauty of the package’s overall design. The $110 sticker price may seem steep, but it’s a steal for the bounty of goodies included in this excellent set. Visit the Varèse Sarabande site for more audio clips and to order.

SPARTACUS is album #1,000 for Townson and a worthy milestone it is, in terms of sheer numbers and the accomplishment of pulling together such an impressive feat for this particular score. Not every future score release will justify the care and lavish attention given to North’s classic work. But Townson has raised the bar for all film music releases, a standard that will be hard to meet, much less exceed. This is an essential purchase for every film score fan. Kudos to Townson & Co. for a true film music treasure that fans can enjoy for years to come. We all should rise up and give thanks. Who’s with me?

  1. Thanks for this, Jim. I have yet to get the set… I just can’t afford it now… but it’s great to hear these samples. The mono tracks sound excellent!

    When I get the funds… or maybe my wife will be kind enough to purchase this one for my birthday in a month and a half… I will finally own my last true holy grail!

    Excellent review as always, Jim.


    1. If you need anyone to persuade the Missus, let me know. ;) This would make a superb birthday gift. You won’t be disappointed. Glad you enjoyed the review.

  2. Oh yes – worth every penny for this…
    The “Love Theme and Variations” double disc was everything I hoped it would be. Lalo Schifrin’s arrangement blew me away, and was my easy favorite; but that Argentine-tango version was appropriately original, and I quickly warmed up to that as well. Nathan Barr and Lisbeth Scott gave it the Zimmer/Horner treatment (yuck) and was my pick for the lowpoint cover.
    The whole set is lush and lovely. It really is a shame that the entire score isn’t preserved in stereo, which must mean that the 1991 restoration, surprisingly, didn’t have separate music stems to work with. It’s somewhat disconcerting for me to listen to a mono version of a score recorded for a Super Technirama film, so I’ll probably just run the film when I need to get completist.
    I have yet to watch the dvd conversations, but I’m sure they’ll cap off this extraordinary set very nicely.
    I’m sure most will agree that this release was worth the wait.

    1. It definitely was worth the wait. I personally don’t have a problem with the mono version. I get used to the sound pretty quickly and get lost in the music and don’t even notice it. At least it’s clean mono. Either way, I’m happy to have whatever there is of both.

  3. Hi Jim,

    I was also a little bit afraid to open the box. It just lay there on the dining table for two days…unopened. Yeah I know, a little bit strange, but I received Predator and Ivanhoe at the same time, so it wasn’t only trepedation. But, anyway, the music is out of the box!. I listened to the stereo tracks yesterday and today I started listening to the Love theme variations while reading your review, which is spot on. Really, really like what I’ve heard so far.


  4. Jim, I wholeheartedly agree with everything you said. I’ve waited decades for a more complete Spartacus having only owned the harsh sounding and less than ideally representative MCA LP. For my money it’s the greatest score ever written and after the long wait this box set not only met, but by far exceeded my expectations (the mono issue notwithstanding). It may be expensive and more than some had wanted, but surely a score of this magnitude deserved something special and Robert Townson rose to the occasion and by doing so pushed beyond the boundaries of all previous single film score presentations.

    I met with Robert Townson last Friday when I was in LA and he brought up the topic of the different orders of approach people may take in tackling the set for the first time. He thought that rather than listening to the music first, perhaps viewing the documentary first instead would help listeners gain more insight and appreciation for what they were about to hear and I have to agree with him on that. I told him I did it in sort of an off beat way myself by listening to the love theme discs first since I was really curious about those and then I watched the documentary. Going this route not only afforded me an even better appreciation for the score before listening to it, but also helped build up the anticipation for this first, long awaited listen. Turns out for me it was the right choice. I wanted to savor this first listen and take in each disc slowly which I did over several days.

    Funny, the two versions of the love theme you liked the most were mine too! I thought the Navarro was the most offbeat and fun interpretation and Desplat’s the most curious and fascinating. Robert told me he was working on the masters for the love them discs when he received Desplat’s version at the last minute and was simply blown away by it. Desplat played all 12 flute parts so it was an amazing one man show!

    I’ll cherish this set for many years to come and I feel it is not only a fitting tribute to North and his epic score, but also something of a scholarly document worthy of long term study. It truly celebrates the art of film music.

    We are all SPARTACUS!


    1. Interesting that Townson would suggest the DVD first. If you’re not familiar with the score, then that may be the way to go. Though I feel the DVD is geared more to those of us who love the score already, where the inclusion of photos and other images might have “sold” newbies on the score a bit better. But it’s his project, so my opinion doesn’t matter. LOL

      I don’t think I knew that Desplat played all those flute parts. Now it’s even more of an impressive display!

      We are all Spartacus, indeed! :)

  5. The most overrated CD release of all time. Nothing more that a love-fest for the producer, who is much too full of himself. I am not criticising Alex North’s score, which is one of the finest ever composed for a Hollywood film, mind you.

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