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]
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.
Herrmann in darkest, starkest mood. A chilling ride.