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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers




Franz WAXMAN (1906-1967)
The Classic Film Scores of Franz Waxman

(Music from: Prince Valiant, A Place in the Sun, The Bride of Frankenstein, Sunset Boulevard, Old Acquaintance, Rebecca, The Philadelphia Story, and Taras Bulba)
National Philharmonic Orchestra/Charles Gerhardt
rec. Kingsway Hall, London on 10-11 July, 1974
DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo and 4.0 surround, reviewed in surround
HIGH DEFINITION TAPE TRANSFERS BD-A no catalogue number [53:35]

Bernard HERRMANN (1911-1975)
The Classic Film Scores of Bernard Herrmann
(Music from: Citizen Kane, On Dangerous Ground, Beneath the 12-Mile Reef, Hangover Square, and White Witch Doctor)
National Philharmonic Orchestra/Charles Gerhardt
rec. Kingsway Hall, London on 11-13 June, 1974
DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo and 4.0 surround, reviewed in surround
HIGH DEFINITION TAPE TRANSFERS BD-A no catalogue number [52:08]

The Fantasy Film World of Bernard Herrmann

(Music from: Journey to the Centre of the Earth, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Fahrenheit 451)
National Philharmonic Orchestra/Bernard Herrmann
rec. West Hampstead Studio 3, London in June, 1974
DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo and 4.0 surround, reviewed in surround
HIGH DEFINITION TAPE TRANSFERS BD-A no catalogue number [45:59]

There is, I assure you, a compelling logic to this grouping, the most obvious being three BD-A surround-sound releases from HDTT, all featuring the National Philharmonic Orchestra, and the film scores of two legendary composers for the genre. As well, each was recorded in 1974, utilising Decca sound engineers. Leaving common factors aside, the two Bernard Herrmann discs also provide a reasonable conspectus of his film music output until that time, without duplication. Some might rue the absence of Psycho, Vertigo, Marnie and North by Northwest, for example, which Herrmann recorded for Decca in 1969, and currently available in CD format. The question, though, is whether multi-channel versions exist.

The Herrmann and Franz Waxman discs conducted by Charles Gerhardt have had two previous CD releases, first in the early 1990s with Dolby Surround encoding, and again about five years ago as stereo-only remasterings. On each occasion, they were given the original Classic Film Scores appellation. The Waxman in its first form was reviewed on this site, while the Herrmann received multiple mentions such as here, but appears to have eluded a full review. Note also the list of recommendations at the second link includes the other Herrmann recording reviewed here, as a Decca Phase-4 CD, now discontinued. That recording, together with other film scores Herrmann put down with Decca, are currently available on a pair of Australian Eloquence 2-CD sets (review~review).

Two fascinating contrasts are provided by these three discs – not only between the compositional styles of Waxman and Herrmann, but between Herrmann’s music as conducted by himself and by his ardent advocate, Charles Gerhardt. Waxman was of the European late Romantic school; together with fellow immigrants such as Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Max Steiner, he defined the early Hollywood sound and, to a considerable extent, still influences it. While Waxman was not as melodically gifted as his peers, he was immensely skilled in orchestration. This is amply evident in Gerhardt’s readings, where the range of colours and effects is quite spellbinding – while listening, I found myself painting movie scenes in my head. The American-born Herrmann, on the other hand, was melodically prolific, even his favoured ostinato patterns making indelible impressions. His style, however, was more acerbic, reflective apparently of his personality. This contrast could not be plainer when comparing Gerhardt’s lavish recording of Waxman’s music with Herrmann’s quite spare recordings of his own work. It’s reasonable to assume that Herrmann conducted his scores with the metrical precision required for their cinematic purpose, because that’s how they come across – absolutely literal as though being read by computer. That, however, does not diminish his music’s appeal – in some ways it becomes even more riveting, its evolving patterns and intriguing harmonies setting, but not necessarily solving, aurally tantalizing puzzles.

In the lush Gerhardt treatment, the line between Herrmann’s and Waxman’s music becomes fuzzier, although there are still two distinct voices. One can’t overlook that the series producer was George Korngold, possibly wearing his father’s late-Romantic hat. Herrmann died the year after these recordings were made, and whether he had an opinion on Gerhardt’s interpretation of his music, I’m not sure. One obvious, but necessary, liberty taken was with the Salammbo aria from Citizen Kane, sung by a young Kiri Te Kanawa, where it’s delivered in its full glory, rather than with floundering incompetence as in the film. The liner notes confirm this deviation.

The Herrmann Fantasy Film World disc was recorded in Studio 3 at Decca’s West Hampstead site. This was the largest auditorium in the complex, but would only just accommodate a symphony orchestra. Added reverberation made it sound ‘bigger’ and provided other effects, such as those famous Mantovani strings, which were created in an adjacent storeroom converted to an echo chamber. It also meant aggressive multi-miking to achieve orchestral balance. Along with this Herrmann production, Decca recorded quite a slice of its loved-and-hated Phase-4 series in Studio 3.

The Phase-4 sound for Herrmann is typical of its kind – closely miked wind, percussion and lower strings, widely separated, with reverberant upper strings. It is at once claustrophobic, overbearing, and yes – a bit exciting. As a surround-sound experience in a normal listening room, I didn’t find the closeness too unnatural. The four channels are used discretely for instrumental effects, and with it all going on around me, I had this otherworldly feeling of being inside the composer’s head. For that reason alone, I’d strongly recommend this version over the stereo alternatives for those who have surround sound available.

The two Gerhardt-conducted discs were originally made for RCA Victor, at another legendary London site, using Decca sound maestro Kenneth Wilkinson. Was there ever a more potent recording force than ‘Wilkie’ in Kingsway Hall? The range and visceral impact of these recordings is still stunning, not to mention the impeccable internal balances and sheer luxuriance of it all. Added to that, they’re a quadraphonic tour de force. The Herrmann disc begins with the Death Hunt from On Dangerous Ground, with scurrying strings and woodwinds in front of you, pursued by french – or should I say ‘hunting’ – horns from the rear; harp glissandi encircle you in Beneath the 12-Mile Reef; and jungle drums party around the room in White Witch Doctor. The Waxman mix is a little more static, with the orchestra divided between front and rear channels, meaning that brass and percussion are mostly behind you. Key solos such as the saxophone in A Place in the Sun and the ondes martenot in The Bride of Frankenstein float eerily around in open space. It’s wonderfully enveloping and quite thrilling.

HDTT have done their usual excellent job in transferring these recordings from commercial 4-track tapes to digital media, my review copies being Blu-ray audio discs, encoded as stereo and 4.0 surround. There are caveats, though, as noted in my recent review of HDTT Ormandy reissues. These are copies of nth generation tapes, and there’s only so much you can do. There was an immediate impression of high frequency deficit, and the occasional suggestion of a tape artefact, such as post-echo. With the original short playing times, these discs are not good value for money. Another factor for those not seeking surround sound is the ready availability of CD alternatives which have been mastered from fresher sources, contain at least as much material, and cost considerably less.

So I have a qualified but enthusiastic recommendation for these discs as surround sound transfers of the original commercial tapes. I also renew my plea for the original multi-channel masters to be re-released in current formats. Some 10 years ago when Sony/BMG reissued a large slice of the RCA Living Stereo series on SACD, there were murmurings they would carry on and reissue the Classic Film Scores series on SACD also. They should have, and they still can.

Des Hutchinson



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