Basil Poledouris: Conan the Barbarian
Philipp Pelster, organ
The musical art of transcription, transferring music conceived for one instrument or ensemble to another, has, over the centuries, bespoken numerous causes: preservation, practicality, profit. But the best examples — J. S. Bach arranging Vivaldi, Gil Evans and Miles Davis transforming Rodrigo, Franz Liszt reworking everybody — have also advertised the transcriber’s connoisseurship. In that regard, German organist Philipp Pelster has excellent if uncommon taste.
One of the best better-than-it-needed-to-be things about the 1982 film “Conan the Barbarian” — the lavish, wryly stilted, brimming-with-testosterone epic that propelled both Arnold Schwarzenegger and the mantra “crush your enemies” into the Reagan-era zeitgeist — was Basil Poledouris’s score, its dark, modal orchestral grandeur and bone-crushing percussiveness setting a pulp-fantasy standard that still prevails. Pelster’s pipe-organ translation is hardly a replacement; the original’s drums and choirs can only be approximated, the heavy-metal drive exchanged for more organ-specific, rhythmically fluid rhetorical emphasis. But the florid moods suit the instrument. Pelster pulls intriguingly atmospheric stops — the Claremont, Calif., United Church of Christ’s Glatter-Götz/Rosales organ reveals some especially growling bombardes and sharp, crunchy mixtures — and his playing creates its own sweeping breadth.
And besides, in a world that all too readily reminds us of its capacity for horrors, that this album exists — and is such agreeable listening, to boot — ever so slightly tips the balance back toward the possibility of unexpected delight. I would not have suspected that I needed an organ transcription of a 1980s sword-and-sorcery score in my life. Crom works in mysterious ways.