Benjamin Frankel joins my growing list of composers about whom I know very little and about whom very little is written, despite having written some excellent film music. The 1950's and 60's were filled with World War II movies and by all accounts this was one of the more intelligent entries in a genre that often spent far too much time on large battles scenes and not a great deal on dialogue and acting (something that Hollywood films still don't get right far too often). Ron Goodwin usually springs to my mind when considering WWII movies, but of course Elmer Bernstein The Great Escape and William Walton's wonderful (albeit mainly rejected music) for The Battle of Britain being two of the most famous and memorable examples otherwise.
Unlike many WWII film scores, Battle of the Bulge does not revolve around a central march; there are of course plenty of militaristic stylings, but Frankel seems to concentrate more on the drama than on making it sound like a war film score. This is almost certainly to his advantage since it immediately lifts it above more genre specific efforts. In fact the writing is a great deal more complex than I had ever anticipated, with cues that are carefully constructed and use the numerous themes to best effect in delineating the action in purely musical form. The more exciting moments hit a high early on with the tense and riveting Aerial Pursuit which features some ferocious brass writing against athletic strings used to perform the extremely sprightly 'action motif.' The later action cues are often surprisingly long, with the nine minute First Tank Battle being perhaps the pinnacle, a cue that starts slowly by soon rumbles into life to great effect which no doubt accompanies a monumentally staged and exciting action set piece onscreen. Quieter moments are still thematic and appropriate, but it is almost certainly the dynamism of the Frankel's action material that sticks in the mind longest.
In an attempt toward completism, the album also includes a full performance of Panzerlied which is a jingoistic German marching song. Due to having watched far too much Monty Python, the amusement factor did creep in for me on occasion (I can just imagine all the Pythons dressed up in lederhose singing it, probably backed by a chorus of Vikings or lumberjacks). The song's melody appears occasionally throughout the score, most notably on tuba, but also reprised in the full choral and orchestral arrangement. One other curious moment is Christmas at Ambleve which actually interpolates Good King Wenceslas and The First Noel, which is the only time where Frankel appears to want to deliberately suggest time or place through music, rather than sticking to dramatic statements alone.
The playing by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Werner Andreas Albert is technically excellent and with more than enough dynamism. Whether it is idiomatic to Frankel's style I couldn't say, but I couldn't really imagine more stirring playing. The recording is also excellent, dry and crisp enough to hear the details in the complex action writing, but with enough reverb to give it a little warmth and avoid any undue harshness. The booklet is especially noteworthy as it has exceptionally detailed information about each track, notes about the battle itself, as well as biographies for both Frankel and Albert. A final nice touch is to include printed musical excerpts of the major themes and motifs, even if some are easier to spot than others when listening to the disc. An excellent score with an exceptional production, by a composer whose name might be familiar even if whose music might not be. Highly recommended in every respect.