On record – Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra / Mark Fitz-Gerald – Mortimer Wilson: The Thief of Bagdad (First Hand Records)

wilson-baghdad

Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra / Mark Fitz-Gerald

Wilson The Thief of Bagdad Op.74 (1924)

First Hand Records FHR126 [74’45”]

Producer Philipp Knop Engineer Lisa Harnest

Recorded 11 April 2019 at Sendesaal, Hessicher Rundfunk, Frankfurt

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

First Hand Records comes up with another ‘first’ in this recording of the score for the film The Thief of Bagdad starring Douglas Fairbanks – one that set new standards for the ‘epic’   during the silent era, and which originally featured music to match from Mortimer Wilson.

What’s the music like?

Having starred in several major films (The Mark of Zorro, The Three Musketeers and Robin Hood), Fairbanks Sr determined to take matters to another level with The Thief of Baghdad – not least making its score an integral component. For this he turned to Wilson (1876-1932) – who had studied in Leipzig with Reger and later directed the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, writing numerous compositions and several pedagogical books – encouraging him to create music whose symphonic aspect and panoramic expression were in themselves innovative.

Not all those involved in the project shared Fairbanks’s enthusiasm – among them impresario Morris Gest, who conspired to replace Wilson’s score with one from a higher-profile figure. James C. Bradford’s hurriedly assembled concoction almost immediately fell by the wayside, allowing the film’s highly successful first run to continue with Wilson’s music firmly in situ. Understandable, perhaps, why it had garnered praise but also attracted reservations given an emotional intensity and technical intricacy in advance of those previously attempted within a cinematic context. That said, Wilson was keen to make realization as practicable as possible – using relatively modest forces to facilitate performances in out-of-town venues, limiting the number of tempo or expression markings and even printing its parts in an easy-to-use format.

Nine decades on, its restoration was inevitably a challenge such as Mark Fitz-Gerald, having done comparable work on Shostakovich’s similarly ground-breaking scores for New Babylon (Naxos 8.572824-25) and Alone (Naxos 8.570316), was well equipped to undertake. How the music was initially reassembled and then adjusted to ensure its absolute synchronization with the film is explained in the accompanying booklet, a process which took several months prior to the first present-day showing at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in October 2016, with the French premiere at Lyon this March. DVD presentation will hopefully be possible in due course; for now, the opportunity to hear Wilson’s superbly crafted score in so sympathetic a performance can only be welcomed by admirers of silent films and early 20th century music.

Does it all work?

Nearly always. Wilson’s music is firmly within the late-Romantic vein of Glière or Respighi, though a pertinent comparison might be Ernesto Halffter’s score for the silent film Carmen released just two years later and on which Fitz-Gerald undertook a similar act of restoration (Naxos 5.572260). In both cases, the music’s panoramic sweep is reinforced by interplay of themes and motifs which sustains dramatic tension across the whole. Moreover, the exclusion of repeated sections makes for a ‘screen symphony’ which fits comfortably onto a single disc.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. The Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra responds ably to Fitz-Gerald’s astute direction, and the sound has clarity as well as presence. The booklet, featuring extensive commentaries by Fitz-Gerald and Patrick Stanbury, sets the seal on this ambitious and worthwhile enterprise.

Listen and Buy

To listen to excerpts from this disc and view purchase options, visit the First Hand Records website. To read more about Mortimer WIlson, this interesting article from the New York Times gives more information, while for more on Douglas Fairbanks click here To read more about the performers, click on the names of Mark Fitz-Gerald and Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra.

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