Bernard HERRMANN (1911-1975)
Moby Dick - A Cantata for male chorus, soloists and orchestra (1936-38) [46:20]
Sinfonietta for Strings (1936) [16:50]
Richard Edgar-Wilson (tenor) - Ishmael/Starbuck
David Wilson-Johnson (baritone) - Ahab
Poul Emborg (tenor) - Harpooner/Sailor/Voice
Rasmus Gravers (tenor) - Pip
Uffe Henriksen (tenor) - Drunken Sailor
Danish National Choir
Danish National Symphony Orchestra/Michael Schønwandt
rec. Koncerthuset, DR Byen, Copenhagen, 8 January (Moby Dick) and 15-16 March (Sinfonietta) 2011. SACD Hybrid Multi-channel
CHANDOS CHSA5095 [63:10]

Would you believe it? This is now the third recorded version of Herrmann’s Moby Dick - a work dedicated to Charles Ives. A 1940 broadcast has survived which has just been issued by the Barbirolli Society on SJB 1056. Ishmael is sung by William Hain, Ahab by Robert Weede, Starbuck by William Horne. Pip and First Sailor is sung by Philip Reep and Second Sailor by Gean Greenwell. The Male Chorus of the Westminster Choir were joined by the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York. The Society has through Dutton issued at least one previous CD of archive broadcast concert works by a film music composer, namely William Alwyn’s first two symphonies, again with Barbirolli conducting. The coupling is Charles Wakefield Cadman’s Dark Dances of the Mardi Gras again at Carnegie Hall with the composer at the piano.
Until now the version we are most likely to know is the 1967 recording conducted by the composer and coupled with For the Fallen. Those singers involved are John Amis (a Herrmann stalwart), Robert Bowman, David Kelly, Michael Rippon and the London Philharmonic. It was issued in 1993 on CD as Unicorn-Kanchana UKCD 2061. The work is in five tracks as against the 11 more precisely navigable tracks here. It’s a fervent performance but is often occluded by analogue distortion. It’s interesting and more than interesting but the new Chandos is the one to go for. The label has already established an enviable track record with its first Herrmann disc: Citizen Kane.
The text for the Herrmann work was selected and arranged by W. Clark Harrington from the Melville classic. Beginning life as an operatic project it evolved into this dramatic-scenic cantata. I was familiar with the piece in the Unicorn version and it always seemed a bit grey and one-dimensional - an unfair impression having listened again to the still flawed Unicorn CD. There’s none of that matte quality with the Chandos performance and recording. As for the music it gains in interest. It’s a most atmospheric recording and the more musing sections recall the hollow solipsism of the solo baritone writing in Hadley’s The Hills. Surprisingly there are several sections suggesting that Britten might well have been in the audience for the 1940 premiere. Its signature surely lodged in Britten’s mind only to emerge four years later when he was writing Peter Grimes. Subtle shimmers and orchestral wails depict the becalmed Pequod. There’s no lack of raw abrasive power and upheaval we can hear in the opening track.
The Sinfonietta - dedicated to his wife, Lucille Fletcher Herrmann - receives its first recording in the work’s original version. The revised version (which I have not played for comparison) has already been recorded by Koch International (1936 3-7152-2H1) with Isaiah Jackson conducting the Berlin Symphony Orchestra in April 1992. It’s couplings are major string works by Rózsa and Waxman. This somewhat gloomy, spiky, downbeat and dissonant three movement piece charts waters frequented by Schoenberg and Bartok. Not surprisingly the writing at times links with the anxious and nervy music for massed strings in Psycho.
Herrmann is doing well this year. The extended full score to the film for The Battle of Neretva is being issued by Anna Bonn, John Morgan and William Stromberg with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra on Tribute Film Classics. That disc is augmented with a suite from The Naked and the Dead. The sessions took place in Moscow on 18-21 October 2010.
So, this is the version of Moby Dick to have - quite special, in superbly growling and purring sound and well documented.
Let us hope that in the Chandos board-room and workbench there is funding for a truly inspired recording of Herrmann’s opera, Wuthering Heights. After all, it emerged in resplendent finery when revived on French radio a couple of years ago. We could also do with Herrmann’s radio station music for the poetic melodramas on verse by Housman and Poe. We also need a spectacularly well recorded and inspirationally engaged recording of the 1941 Herrmann Symphony. The work has already been out on Unicorn LP (RHS331) and CD (UKCD2063 - sounding much better than Herrmann’s Moby Dick equivalent) conducted by the composer with the National Philharmonic (1974) and from James Sedares with the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra on Koch International 3-7135-2H1. However Chandos would, I am sure, make a glorious fist of it either with Gamba or Schønwandt. Think on!
Rob Barnett 

see also reviews by Ian Lace and Karim Elmahmoudi

This is the version of Moby Dick to have - quite special, in superbly growling and purring sound and well documented.