Taras Bulba

CD Review: Taras Bulba

Bernard Herrmann called it “the score of a lifetime.” And, oh, what a lifetime! Except for some TV work and one final film, TARAS BULBA brought Franz Waxman his 12th Oscar nomination and put a capper on a distinguished career.

In this adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s novella, Yul Brynner starred as the leader of the Ukrainian Cossacks battling the invading Poles, with Tony Curtis as his son. While the film doesn’t offer much dramatically, Brynner and Curtis seem to be having fun with their father/son roles (even if Curtis is completely wrong for the part), while director J. Lee Thompson (THE GUNS OF NAVARONE) offers up sweeping vistas of the Ukrainian (actually Argentinean) steppes. Filming down south where the labor and the horses come cheap helps give the film some of its sweep with hundreds of extras—human and equine—filling the screen. If you ignore the rather staid plot (which probably reads better in Gogol’s original prose), you might just get caught up in the grandeur, thanks in no small part to Waxman’s exciting score.

The original soundtrack album (since released on CD by Rhino and Kritzerland) was a studio re-recording with a smaller orchestra than what the score calls for. Now, thanks to the good folks at Tadlow, Waxman’s classic score arrives complete in all its raw Cossack glory.

This is a score built on energetic bursts of orchestral color and fast rhythmic figures, and Waxman gets the blood racing right from the top. Combining quotes from the musical centerpiece of the score, “The Ride to Dubno,” and the love theme, “The Wishing Star,” Waxman gives us a rousing “Overture” which sets the tone for the action adventure to come.

The quiet moments in the score are few, mainly using by the tender lullaby theme for Andrei (Curtis) and the yearning 3/4 time of the love theme. Instead, this is a score that relies on its energy and musical muscle. In the original liner notes, Waxman said the five major themes were “composed in the spirit and harmonic structure of Russian folk music,” giving the melodies a singing quality that plays to the score’s strengths.

Taras Bulba Film Score
“Young Andrei / The Priest / Arrival at Kiev / Students Fight”
“Gypsy Camp”

One of the pleasures of this recording is hearing cues that may function as source music in the film but stand up as fine pieces of music on their own. One such example is “Gypsy Camp.” Hidden behind the raucous night-before-battle party atmosphere in the film is a wild orchestral tour de force. Short brass motifs yell out in drunken revelry as strings swirl, French horns wail, and tambourines shake in manic fury. Waxman cleverly morphs the cue from pure source to underscoring with a sly and subtle hand.

In addition to Waxman’s glorious complete score (restored by conductor Nic Raine), producer James Fitzpatrick includes vocal selections from the film, some of which are being heard for the first time. Their inclusion is essential to understanding the score as many of the song melodies form major themes within the score. While you may not want to listen to them over and over again, they round out the album nicely and continue that Ukrainian feel without ever feeling extraneous or functioning simply as padding for the CD running time. Also included are alternate and concert versions of various cues and a stunning six-hand piano version of “The Ride of the Cossacks.”

Fitzpatrick works his producer magic once again, perfectly balancing the orchestral colors and unearthing instrumental details that certainly can’t be heard in the film and are missing on the old recording. Raine and The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra perform the fiendishly difficult music with great skill and boundless energy. Frank DeWald’s typically incisive liner notes provide full details on the film and score.

TARAS BULBA has always been a favorite score of mine and Tadlow’s new rerecording does not disappoint. While the original LP (and subsequent CD reissues) felt like a near-perfect representation of the score, this recording shows more clearly than ever what a full-bodied, stunning piece of music Waxman composed, giving the score greater depth. All the classic cues from the original album are there, plus a wealth of new material that should please fans of the score and hopefully win some new ones. I raise a mug of vodka in toast—Zaporozhti!

  1. A mug of vodka? I’ll buy tickets to that! The Tadlow score re-recordings have all been terrific so far, and if a score ever deserved a modern, 2-disc treatment, it’s this one by Waxman; glad to see it got your highest rating. I suggest seeking out friends with the biggest speakers for THE RIDE TO DUBNO!

  2. I received a copy yesterday, and haven’t stopped playing it. A remarkable production in every respect.

    John Williams is obviously familiar with the score too, but that’s a different discussion altogether. ;-)

  3. What a score Jim!

    Waxman was a beyond doubt a genius.

    That Gypsy Camp cut could have come from the pens of Brahms or Dvorak.
    I actually love the film which would probably been some kind of classic if the studio hadn’t butchered it in the editing room which left chunks of Waxman’s score along side of Brynner’s powerful portrait of the fiery Cossack leader on the floor.

    Also remember what a great year 1962 was for film music. Unbelievable! Check the Oscar noms.

  4. Hermann was spot-on; the score of a lifetime, indeed — with Shostakovitch meeting Glazunov, by way of Rimsky-Korsakov (and with a little Karl Goldmark thrown in).

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