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]

The new Chandos recording of Bernard Herrmann's dramatic cantata, Moby Dick, demonstrates the ease with which he moved between concert hall and film soundstage. Having been premiered by Sir John Barbirolli and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Herrmann’s setting of the Melville classic shows an admiration for Vaughan Williams and Britten at their most austere.

As one would expect from anything by Herrmann, there is atmosphere and moodiness aplenty. The music is dark and troubled with a wide dynamic range. The percussion and winds sound excellent. “Ishmael – It was a clear steel blue day” and the monologues of Ahab are particularly beautiful and well sung by Richard Edgar-Wilson and David Wilson-Johnson. Herrmann’s music is at its best during the sombre moments. The longer movements seem a bit disjointed and lack a sense of taut structure. The overall effect is of a sequence of somewhat motivic fragments rather than a sense of building a cumulative unified structure.

Comparing this recording to the composer’s own version demonstrates how skilled a conductor he was. This work inhabits the same sound-world as some of his broadly contemporary scores such as the masterpiece, Citizen Kane and his Symphony. The contemporaneous Sinfonietta for Strings makes an attractive filler and it here receives its premiere performance in the original version. It would have been nice if Chandos has included some other rare concert piece by Herrmann such as his delicate early Keats-based work, La Belle Dame Sans Merci.

The recorded sound of this new Chandos recording is natural and balanced with some lovely performances by chorus and orchestra. The recording features a demonstration-worthy bass and rich sonorities but in some instances the high strings sound a bit thin, and the brass lack the bite that Herrmann’s own recording from the late 1960s had. Perhaps Herrmann's style of conducting lent itself to being over the top in a way that fans of his music have come to expect and when it is played "straight", it can feel somewhat restrained.

It is hard to beat the composer’s own interpretation from the late 1960s with its intensity and the great London Philharmonic Orchestra. It’s on the Unicorn label. Unfortunately, that recording featured clipping during the loudest moments and shows its age. This Chandos version is the technical winner though lacking some of the intensity those familiar with the original recording would expect. As a mellower performance, this newer version succeeds very well. This is especially true in the more tranquil moments which are played with both drama and lyric beauty.

Those who can’t get enough Herrmann will enjoy this CD but will probably keep Herrmann’s own Unicorn CD for its boldness despite its age.

Karim Elmahmoudi

A winner though lacking some of the intensity of the original Herrmann-conducted recording.