Battle for Music

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: A film by Donald Taylor
LABELS: Panamint
ALBUM TITLE: Battle for Music
WORKS: A film by Donald Taylor
PERFORMER: London Philharmonic Orchestra, Malcolm Sargent, Adrian Boult, Constant Lambert, Warwick Braithwaite, Eileen Joyce, Benno Moiseiwitsch
CATALOGUE NO: PCM 6004 (1943) (DVD); BLU 1002 (blu-ray)

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Today’s British orchestras face problems enough, but they have yet to face the ordeals of the London Philharmonic early in the Second World War, when bankruptcy loomed, Luftwaffe raids dogged provincial tours, and most of their instruments went up in smoke with London’s Queen’s Hall in 1941. The orchestra survived through radical reorganisation, good fellowship, and grit – a narrative resonant and patriotic enough to have been recreated for the cameras in this awkward but fascinating feature film, completed in 1943.

Largely shot in the studio, Battle for Music hops about nervously in style between documentary and fiction, with performance extracts interleaved. The awkward acting of orchestral musicians, topped by viola player Thomas Russell, the LPO’s business manager, is easy to criticise, but their dogged sincerity is touching. Other personalities like JB Priestley behave with more aplomb. On or off the podium, Malcolm Sargent shows that he wasn’t nicknamed ‘Flash Harry’ for nothing; though there’s greater musical interest in Adrian Boult vigorously conducting Elgar’s Cockaigne, or Constant Lambert’s dramatic baton attacks in Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet and Rachmaninov’s Second Concerto, with pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch in sync at the keyboard.

Somewhat erratically edited, Battle for Music exists in several alternate cuts, one of which is presented alongside in this excellent release, together with other wartime films. Len Lye’s Musical Poster No. 1 offers dizzily enjoyable abstract animation. And there’s much food for thought in C.E.M.A., about the forerunner of Britain’s Arts Council, where factory workers have Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 for lunch. Those were the days.

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Geoff Brown