Leroy SHIELD (1893-1962)
Laurel & Hardy: The Original Piano Music
Music from Looser than loose (1930), Pardon us (1930-1931), Doctor's orders (1930), Be big! (1931), Teacher's pet (1930), Another fine mess (1930), 'Scram!' (1932), Bargain day (1931), Chickens come home (1931), Maids à la mode (1933), Girl shock, fast work (1930), Helping grandma (1931), Air-tight (1931), Laughing gravy (1931) and Leroy Shield song album (1931)
Alessandro Simonetto (piano)
rec. 30 April-1 May 2016 (Leroy Shield song album) and 19-21 August 2016 at Saletta acustica "Eric James", Pove del Grappa, Vicenza, Italy
AEVEA AE16024 [66:48]
In preparation for writing this review I watched the six short Laurel & Hardy films from which much of the music on this disc has been taken - Pardon us, Be big!, Another fine mess, 'Scram!', Chickens come home and Laughing gravy (which, just in case you've never seen it and were wondering, is the utterly surreal name of Stan Laurel's pet dog). While, as a long-time fan, I immediately recognised several familiar background tunes, I confess that I'd never thought a great deal about them before now. On this occasion, however, I listened more carefully in an attempt to discover whether they added anything specific to the films - and, if so, what.
Like me, you have probably seen film of the making of modern movies where orchestras and conductors in a studio painstakingly synchronise their musical notes to action projected onto a screen in front of them. These days, then, it's pretty fair to say that the union between music and action is virtually complete. However, going back to these old scores - written primarily for Laurel & Hardy films but also for others with Charley Chase, ZaSu Pitts and Thelma Todd, The Boy Friends and Our Gang at the top of the bill - it's clear that in the early 1930s something very different was going on. I was actually about to write "...going on in the studio" at that point but, now that I think about it, there wasn't really any need at all for the musicians to be present there to watch these films while recording their scores. That's because in 1930-1932 there wasn't any real intention to match the music precisely to the image on the screen in the way that we expect to see today. As Glenn Mitchell points out in his invaluable The Laurel & Hardy encyclopedia (London, 1995), a significant proportion of these films' soundtracks simply utilised contemporary popular songs: some of those - Smile when the raindrops fall - are so long-forgotten that some listeners will assume them to have been written for the films in which they're heard, while others such as That's my weakness now still just about remain on the edges of popular consciousness. But, even when the music written for these films was original, its purpose was simply to create a general atmosphere of light-heartedness and, in particular, a sense of momentum - a quality apparently much valued by Stan Laurel - rather than to match any specific on-screen action. In fact, so non-specific was much of the music to the Laurel & Hardy shorts that it was often recycled to reappear in films featuring other comedians from producer Hal Roach's stable (op. cit. pp. 185-186).
It's clear that, at the time of their composition, these pieces were considered essentially ephemeral: in fact, they weren't even given the dignity of descriptive titles but merely allocated reference numbers and little if any effort was made subsequently to preserve them for posterity. It's worth noting, however, that their composer Leroy ("Roy") Shield was evidently a talented and a serious musician. The
website dedicated to him points out that he composed concert works including a Union Pacific suite (1944), accompanied opera singers' recitals at venues including Carnegie Hall and, in 1950, joined Toscanini, no less, on an NBC Symphony Orchestra nationwide tour. The CD booklet confirms that Shield was, for many years, an assistant conductor to the maestro and reproduces a striking photograph in which he is seen laughing uproariously, presumably to a - very, very rare - joke from the notoriously fierce Italian. It's notable too that Shield's 1962 obituary in Variety highlighted his work with the NBC Concert Orchestra and the NBC Summer Symphony, while making no mention whatsoever of his contribution to the Laurel & Hardy films.
This disc is clearly a labour of love by pianist Alessandro Simonetto, who studied film music with Charlie Chaplin's associate composer Eric James. He has also, so Piet Schreuders's detailed and fascinating booklet notes inform us, devoted a huge amount of time and research to locating and reconstructing these scores from often fragmentary sources. That long and detailed immersion in Shield's little known music has paid off handsomely for these are captivating and completely idiomatic performances. They are recorded, moreover, in very fine sound.
Alessandro Siminetto is clearly a most accomplished keyboard player: my colleague Byzantion was mightily impressed by his performance of the mysterious Pieter Bustijn's IX Suittes pour le Clavessin
(review), shortlisting it, in fact, for one of his choices for the 2011 MusicWeb International Recordings of the Year. Jumping ahead from early 18th century harpsichord music, Simonetto now offers us an evocative sequence of 20th century jazz- and ragtime-inflected piano transcriptions that repeatedly bring back fond memories of Laurel and Hardy at their funniest. He is also alert, however, to the need to present his listeners with an attractive 60-odd-minute programme and so makes it even more interesting and enjoyable by deviating now and again from the relentlessly up-tempo mode in which the familiar themes were, as a rule, originally presented. Heard in that more considered and thoughtful way, some of them are revealed as possessing rather more depth - the booklet notes reference both Ravel and Debussy - than we might have suspected from knowing them in simply their filmic form.
Clearly this CD is something of a one-off and is, one imagines, unlikely to face competition any time soon. Laurel & Hardy devotees and anyone else with a taste for the popular culture of the early 1930s would almost certainly enjoy it - as I did - a great deal. And, if any excuse were required, it offers a great incentive to follow my example and to sit down in front of the TV to spend an hour or two in the company of cinema's finest and most exquisitely matched comedy partnership.