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Hollywood Soundstage
Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957)

Overture from The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)
David Raksin (1912-2004)
Theme from Laura (1944)
Herbert Stothart (1885-1949)/Harold Arlen (1905-1986)
Suite from The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Frederick Loewe (1901-1988)
Transylvanian March and Embassy Waltz from My Fair Lady (1956)
Max Steiner (1888-1971)
Suite from Now, Voyager (1942)
Johnny Mandel (1925-2001)
Main Title from The Sandpiper (1965)
Franz Waxman (1906-1967)
Suite from Rebecca (1940)
Alfred Newman (1900-1970)
Street Scene from How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)
Sinfonia of London/John Wilson
rec. 2021, Church of St Augustine, Kilburn, London, UK

Of late, John Wilson has been exploring the symphonic repertoire on disc with the Sinfonia of London. Now, however, he turns his attention back to the Golden Age of Hollywood with some choice examples of music composed for the silver screen between 1939 and 1965. One thing that struck me as slightly odd as I read through the booklet was that in this programme only two items - those by David Raksin and by Johnny Mandel - are heard in orchestrations by the composers themselves. I wondered why this should be so and the only reason I could come up with is that, perhaps, the composers themselves were too busy. For example, David Benedict relates in his excellent booklet essay that Max Steiner composed over 300 film scores in a period of thirty-five years, including no less than twenty-two in just two years (1947-48).

Another passing thought was that this album shows how immigration can enrich a country. Five of the nine composers represented here were born in the USA but the others were born in Europe and for various reasons emigrated to the States. Korngold and Steiner were born in Austria while Waxman and Loewe were born in Germany, the latter to Austrian parents. Undoubtedly, the musical aspect of Hollywood would have been the poorer had not those four composers come to live and ply their trade in the USA.

Korngold’s Overture from The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex gets this album off to the best possible start. Though Korngold was a superb orchestrator, as his symphonic and operatic scores demonstrate, the music played by Wilson and his orchestra was scored by Hugo Friedhofer (1901-1981) and Milan Roder (1878-1959). They did their work very well indeed. The music is fabulously colourful. Often the score is full of glittering pomp and excitement – which would really have made cinema audiences sit up and take notice. Elsewhere, the andante sections are luxuriantly romantic. The Sinfonia of London really get hold of the piece: the album is off to a stirring start.

David Raksin’s theme from Laura is similarly well done. In relating the interesting story of how the music came into being – and nearly didn’t do so in the form that we know today - David Benedict describes Otto Preminger’s film as “[s]mooth on the surface but twisty beneath”. That description could well serve also for Raksin’s theme, not least because the composer’s scoring is full of atmosphere. The excellent muted trombone solos (Andy Wood) add a definite edge.

David Benedict points out that though Harold Arlen composed the songs for The Wizard of Oz it was actually Herbert Stothart who won the Oscar for his underscoring music which ran through the film. Benedict also adds the fascinating piece of information that after a preview, MGM wanted to cut ‘Over the Rainbow’; by some means the song survived the attempted cull and became the film’s most celebrated number. Unsurprisingly, that tune keeps cropping up in Stothart’s suite. The suite is, in effect, a quick tour d’horizon of the film and very enjoyable it is. The scoring was done by no less than three musicians: George Bassman (1914-1997), Murray Cutter (1902-1983), and Leo Arnaud (1904-1991). Their orchestrations are terrific and give Wilson and his orchestra plenty to get their collective teeth into: they do so with relish.

In Frederick Loewe’s Transylvanian March and Embassy Waltz from My Fair Lady it’s the waltz that really catches the listener’s attention. And why not? It’s a glittering waltz, wonderfully orchestrated by Alexander Courage (1919-2008). The present performance has all the panache you could wish for.

For me, Max Steiner’s Suite from the Bette Davis vehicle, Now, Voyager contains the most sophisticated music on the disc. Not only is the music itself – for which Steiner won an Oscar - wonderfully inventive; Steiner’s scoring – as realised in the suite by Hugo Friedhofer – is inspired. The suite is, in effect, a whistle-stop tour of the movie. Steiner’s melodic invention, which includes a good deal of character-sketching, is memorable. Chandos’s detailed documentation even extends to listing all the tempo markings in each score, which is how I know that the end of the suite is marked Grandioso estatico! Has such a marking been used anywhere else in music, I wonder? Wilson and the Sinfonia of London obey the instruction to the letter, rounding off a splendid performance.

Johnny Mandel’s Main Title from The Sandpiper later found particular fame when the melody was used for the song ‘The shadow of your smile’. In this performance of the original version Michael Lovatt plays the intense trumpet solo with great feeling.

This is, apparently, the first recording of the suite which Franz Waxman fashioned from his music for Alfred Hitchcock’s celebrated film, Rebecca. Though Waxman made the suite, the orchestration was done by Leonid Raab (1900-1968). Wisely, Raab ensured that some of Waxman’s most original bits of scoring were retained in the suite. The most obvious one was the use of a pair of novachords. I’d not heard of this instrument before but I learned from the notes that it is an electronic forerunner of the synthesiser. Waxman used the novachords whenever he was illustrating Rebecca herself in the music. Another unusual instrument, the alto flute, was deployed at the start of the Confession scene. The orchestral colourings overall are very inventive and the music is excellent, culminating in a big, imposing ending as Manderley burns.

The programme ends with Alfred Newman’s Street Scene from is score for the 1953. film How to Marry a Millionaire. We hear this in an orchestration by Edward Powell (1909-1984). The music is full of verve and romance, which suits Wilson and his orchestra to a tee.

I enjoyed this album very much indeed. The playing is superb from start to finish. I noted with interest that the sessions took place just a couple of days after John Wilson had led the Sinfonia of London in their debut at the BBC Proms. On that occasion their programme included a performance of Korngold’s Symphony in F-sharp, a work of which they’d already made a fine recording (review). Clearly, conductor and orchestra were on a roll and that comes through in the fruits of these Hollywood sessions. The performances were recorded by Ralph Couzens in sound that has impact and detail. I listened to the stereo layer of this SACD and got excellent results. As I’ve already indicated, David Benedict’s notes are very good indeed.

But it’s the composers who must take the final bow. This programme demonstrates in spades the invention and craftsmanship of some of the composers – and arrangers – who were at the musical heart of the Golden Age of Hollywood. The music sounds superb on this disc. Treat yourself to an hour of pure musical pleasure.

John Quinn

Previous review: John France (September 2022)

Published: October 19, 2022

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