This new CD coincides with the release on The Barbirolli Society’s
own label of his recording of Herrmann’s Moby Dick
with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in Carnegie Hall on
14 April 1940. Barbirolli had premiered the cantata with that
orchestra three days earlier. The conductor claimed that Moby
Dick was “the most important musical work he had heard
from a young musical composer.” Later, in 1967 Herrmann,
as conductor, was to record the work for Unicorn-Kanchana with
a cast that included John Amis as Ishmael and David Kelly as
Ahab. This new recording has the benefit of Chandos’s
best super audio sound.
In passing it is worth noting the close bond between Barbirolli
and Herrmann detailed in Steven C. Smith’s illuminating
biography of Bernard Herrmann, A Heart at Fire’s Centre.
Smith describes how Herrmann, who lived for a portion of his
life in England, was a friend of Barbirolli and was something
of an Anglophile. He had such a broad knowledge and love of
British music and English literature as to cause even experts
to shrink with awe.
Herman Melville’s novel, Moby Dick, the dark story
of a sea captain’s obsession with hunting down the great
white whale, Moby Dick, had been a childhood favourite of the
composer. As a young man Herrmann’s father had served
on whaling ships.
Some might be tempted to compare the work with Vaughan Williams’
Sea Symphony. Both works are about the sea and its moods.
Both works begin imposingly with a grand statement. Whereas
the Vaughan Williams piece is shot through with light, positive
mysticism and hope, Herrmann’s cantata is much darker,
an allegory concerned with man’s puny ineffective revolts
against God and the elements. That opening chorus and orchestral
introduction sets the mood - ‘And God created great whales’
pictures a dark rolling sea and a dire warning. Moby Dick
was conceived for a large orchestra, chorus and soloists. The
two main characters are Ishmael, first mate to the other principal
in the drama, Captain Ahab who is in relentless pursuit of the
great white whale. The work, as recorded here, is cast in eleven
parts. The story moves from that opening chorus, Ishmael’s
ghostly introduction and his haunted recollections to the whale-men’s
at first doleful hymn before defiance, to the voyage itself,
the search and, ultimately to the struggle with Moby Dick himself.
The harmonies and orchestrations are very typically Herrmann,
the composer preferring unfamiliar but telling groups of instruments.
This is particularly true of the woodwinds and strings in their
low, sometimes extremely low, registers, bass drums and muted
snarling brass. The pitching and tossing of the ship in dark
mountainous churning, rolling seas is thus vividly evoked. There
is some relief in a scherzo-like section ‘Hist boys! Let’s
have a jig!’. Even here the voices and feet seemed grounded
and dogged by fate. Later, in the ‘Equator: Pacific Ocean’
movement, the sea is tranquil for a while, the ship seemingly
becalmed - woodwinds suggesting slight zephyrs.
It is noteworthy that even in 1936-8 Herrmann, in Moby Dick,
was creating sonorities that anticipated his music for Hitchcock
thrillers like Vertigo and Psycho.
Both Richard Edgar-Wilson and David Wilson-Johnson are most
convincing and imposing and their articulation is well-nigh
perfect. Michael Schønwandt and his Danish performers
deliver an exciting and often chilling performance of this undervalued
concert work by a man who regarded himself ‘as a composer
who worked in films’. He was much more than that and his
potential as composer was probably never fully realised. He
was his own worst enemy; his irascible nature hardly won him
friends and support.
The album is rounded off with the world premiere of the original
version of Herrmann’s Sinfonietta composed in 1935-36
for String Orchestra. This work was influenced by the once avant-garde
music of Arnold Schoenberg and his followers. Thankfully it
was a short-lived flirtation. The Sinfonietta was Herrmann’s
first published work but it never had a public performance.
It remains a curiosity but like Moby Dick it is darkly
powerful. It lay dormant until 1960 when Herrmann was commissioned
to write the score for the film, Psycho. Alert ears will
detect material in the Scherzo - creepy high strings with occasional
dropped pizzicatos - that closely resembles that bleakly presaging
material for Janet Leigh’s drive towards the Bates Motel
where she will take that fateful shower. Music later in the
Sinfonietta was used by Hermann to underscore cues like
‘The Madhouse’ and ‘The Swamp’.
Herrmann in darkest, starkest mood. A chilling ride but an illuminating
glimpse of the irascible, but highly talented composer away
from the film studio.