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Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Film Music

The Sea Wolf - film music (1941) [55:04] plus trailer [4:40]
The Adventures of Robin Hood suite from film music (1938) [16:22]
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Rumon Gamba
rec. Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester; 1, 3 Sept 2004. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 10336 [76:22]

 

Chandos’s on-going Korngold series reaches his film music and a world premiere recording of the complete score for the 1941 Warner Bros chiller, The Sea Wolf, based on Jack London’s dark, sea adventure novel.

The Sea Wolf starred Edward G. Robinson in the role of the sadistic Wolf Larson, captain of the ‘Ghost’, plagued by crippling headaches and the on-set of blindness. It was one of Robinson’s most distinguished roles delivering a finely shaded performance that revealed Larson’s complicated character, a man capable of immense cruelty but also something of an intellectual: well read enough to quote Milton, "…Better to rule in hell, than serve in heaven…" Robinson was very ably supported by Alexander Knox as Larson’s victim, the quiet, sensitive, scholarly Humphrey Van Weydon. But in the main starring roles, with Robinson, were John Garfield as tough guy George Leach and Ida Lupino as Ruth Webster a woman with something of a shady past.

The story opens with Van Weydon, Leach and Webster all on a San Francisco ferry when it collides with Wolf Larson’s ship. Larson takes them aboard as the ferry sinks but, against their protestations, he refuses to return to port to let them off. Instead he sets out to sea with them as reluctant passengers and in servitude. It proves to be an ill-fated voyage. After intolerable cruelty, the crew of ‘Ghost’ mutiny against Larson, the ship is scuttled leaving only Larson aboard. However he is rejoined by Van Weydon, Leach and Webster who had previously escaped only to be lost in the fog and to return, in error, to the ‘Ghost’. In a powerfully dramatic climax, van Weydon sacrifices his life in a duel with the mad, and now blinded Larson to allow the young couple, by now in love, to escape ... this time to freedom. The film was directed by the great Michael Curtiz. The atmospheric low-key photography of Sol Polito added to the gifted Anton Grot’s art direction. Using diffused light and deep shadow they created a claustrophobic mood with the ‘Ghost’ forever sailing through swirling mists.

I have described this scenario in depth to explain how much Korngold empathised with this material for it resembles the style and mood of his mystical operas Die tote Stadt and Das Wunder der Heliane. Korngold even considered developing this score into an opera. In fact Korngold regarded his film scores as ‘operas without singing’.

As Brendan G. Carroll, President of the Korngold Society, writes in his notes for this release, "It is relatively short compared to his other film scores, for Korngold knew instinctively when and where to place music in a film. Here, he allowed the tense, eerie silences, with just the creaking of Wolf Larson’s sinister ship to stand out in stark contrast, without musical embellishment."

This is a powerful, dramatic but stark score, darkly hued, atmospheric, and, except for the final cues, deeply pessimistic. The score is dominated by endless variations on the brutal-sounding descending six-note theme for Larson’s ship ‘Ghost’. The love interest between Leach and Webster is pessimistic and despairing and initially stated on a harmonica, the ubiquitous instrument favoured by so many Hollywood sailors. Korngold would adapt this theme as the basis of his Third String Quartet (1944). Korngold significantly uses a Novachord to imply Larson’s worsening insanity. The Novachord’s upper registers gave Korngold just the weird, other-worldly effect he wanted. The Main Title music is arresting with its upward flourish of a pair of fifths on horns, trumpets and trombones. This is thrillingly evocative sea music, restless, turbulent and menacing. Korngold uses a large orchestra with a hefty brass section, piano, harp, celesta, vibraphone and generous percussion. But he uses his forces imaginatively and sparingly; listen, for instance, to ‘Fog’ the swirling wisps of cloying mist so brilliantly evoked.

The album’s notes ‘extend particular thanks to Brendan G. Carroll ... for the unstinting assistance in the preparation of this CD.’ This is an important addition to the Korngold discography and I have a sneaking suspicion that we have Brendan to thank for much of the music’s preparation for this recording. And how magnificently Rumon Gamba and the BBC Philharmonic respond to this brooding, atmospheric music thrillingly realising all its dramatic power and evocative subtleties.

A most interesting bonus is included in the shape of the music Korngold created for the theatrical trailer for The Sea Wolf. This trailer had a special sequence showing a young man, in a bookshop, being shown a copy of the Jack London novel. For this scene Korngold adds material strongly reminiscent of his The Prince and the Pauper score - an Errol Flynn starring vehicle based on the Mark Twain novel.

The album is rounded off with music from one of Errol Flynn’s most popular films, The Adventures of Robin Hood (also Warner Bros). Korngold’s score won him a second Oscar for Best Score. I have to admit that I groaned somewhat when I first noticed its inclusion for there are recordings aplenty of the Robin Hood music. I would much preferred to have heard the more neglected Korngold scores such as Escape Me Never or the Constant Nymph. But then I realised that this was something different: the four movement suite that Korngold, himself, developed for concert performance, from the Robin Hood score. It is somewhat different in that it has a slightly reduced orchestration. This is most apparent in the love scene which here uses the saxophone very much to the fore. It sounds more intimate and less opulent than in the film

The complete Sea Wolf score - powerfully dramatic and eerily atmospheric – played with conviction and intensity by the BBC Philharmonic and recorded in superb Chandos sound. A must for all Korngold admirers.

Ian Lace

 

 

 



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