May 2000 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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Victor HERBERT (1859-1924)
Columbus Suite. Irish Rhapsody. Auditorium Festival March. Selections from Natoma
Keith Brion conducting the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra (Bratislava)
MARCO POLO 8.225109 [67:13]
Purchase from: Crotchet

Dublin born, Victor Herbert receive his musical training in Germany and went to the U.S.A. when he was 27 to play at the Metropolitan Opera. He was prodigiously multi-talented: a major orchestral conductor (Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra), orchestral, opera and (silent) film composer, presenter of pops concerts, a fabulously successful bandmaster (competing with Sousa) and a leading composer of Broadway musicals including Naughty Marietta and Babes in Toyland both of which were subsequently filmed. On top of all this he was, for a time, America’s premiere solo cellist

This second concert of Herbert’s music, released by Marco Polo, is conducted by Keith Brion who is director of his own Victor Herbert Orchestra and New Sousa Band. He is known internationally for his specialisation in the works of Victor Herbert, John Philip Sousa, Percy Grainger, Alan Hovhaness and Charles Ives.

The present concert opens with Victor Herbert’s Auditorium Festival March created for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and celebrating Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre where Herbert had ambitions to take his Pittsburgh orchestra. This was the piece that helped clinch the deal. Its jubilant imposing opening will lift you from your seat. Contrasted with the ceremonial pomp are more tender waltz passages and the incorporation of Auld Lang Syne.

Brion proceeds to a scintillating performance of Victor Herbert’s Irish Rhapsody. With harp prominent, misty nostalgia is an early ingredient but the appellation of one commentator, ‘The Irish Wagner’ is appropriate here as we have grand noble material alternating with sweetly sentimental treatments of: All Those Endearing Young Charms; To Sadie’s Eyes; Come O’er the Sea and Rich and Rare Were the Gems She Wore; while the work ends with a rousing brass rendering of Erin Oh, Erin.

A real find is the music for Natoma one of only two grand operas written by Victor Herbert. Herbert composed it working from fragments of Indian music which, to avoid monotony, he harmonised in his own way, while still retaining something of the Indian character. The selections here include mistily atmospheric passages, tender material and war dance music. At least one of the big romantic themes uncannily anticipates Max Steiner. There is also considerable use of exotic Spanish dance rhythms – presumably to suggest the Conquistadores? Why mention of this wonderful music has been omitted from the front cover of the CD booklet, I cannot imagine -- for me it is the best work on this disc.

The major work in the concert is the four-movement, 28-minute Columbus Suite. It begins with the impressionistic ‘Dawn and Sunrise’ which is representational of the great Moorish castle of Ferdinand and Isabella illuminated in an increasingly brightening dawn light until the huge redoubt is revealed in all its magnificence. This is a leisurely portrait, slow to build up to its shattering climax. A piece that brings Wagner face to face with Debussy. ‘At the Convent’ is a shorter but more complex movement with ceremonial pomp, quiet introspective organ prayers and music which signals dread anticipation of the hazardous voyage ahead. ‘Murmurs at Sea’ must be one of the most placid musical seascapes ever. All is calm, the sea glassy, just the quiet gurgling of waters brushing against the keel and soft breezes murmuring in the rigging. Occasionally, a sea bird flies by. Distant thunder is heard which comes little closer then passes. The final movement ‘The Triumph of Columbus’ expands on this mood then the lower strings evoke swelling seas, eventually rising to become powerfully surging as the music reaches a triumphant conclusion.

Heartily recommended


Ian Lace

Rob Barnett adds:

Herbert is known for his numerous contributions to early American musical theatre. Marco Polo now remind us of his work in the classical concert hall in the 1890s when he was director of music with the Pittsburgh Symphony. Marco Polo are not the first to do this. Karl Krueger's Society for the Promotion of the American Musical Heritage recorded Herbert's tone poem Hero and Leander back in the 1960s but since then nothing.

The regal and sumptuous march suffers from a bit of middle age spread and is slightly cheesy in its use of Auld Lang Syne but offsets this with its conviction, sharp tight brass work and anticipations of Korngold and even Walton.

The Rhapsody is comparable to Stanford's similarly titled works. It is gleamingly orchestrated with Rimskian mastery and a light touch. A little Celtic sentiment must be expected and this sighs with endearing charm through a sequence of familiar Irish songs. Jigs and reels hiccup and wink through the pages. This Rhapsody is orchestrated with much skill and the work will appeal to those who appreciate the Dvorak Slavonic Rhapsodies and Dances.

Herbert never completely escapes his light music roots and this needs to be borne in mind but he is clearly a pioneer at ease in the language of 19th century mid-European romanticism. Natoma and Madeline are Herbert's two grand operas. The potpourri from Natoma (1911) uses red Indian songs and dances but the treatment is as American as the material in Dvorak's American Suite and New World Symphony. There are some nice moments but Herbert does have a predilection for grandeur and over-extension of good ideas that let's them run to bombastic fat. Thankfully this predisposition is resisted in the flimsy filmic textures of Dawn and Sunrise at the Alhambra. Here Herbert sounds like early Delius (Florida Suite). At la Rabida is Tchaikovskian (opening pages of Romeo and Juliet and Murmurs of the Sea are of the same cloth never for a moment leaving you in doubt of Herbert's orchestral wizardry. He must have absorbed Rimsky's primer from Sadko and Dubinushka. While there is much to admire in the first three movements the finale, while starting with as much atmosphere as Richard Strauss's Alpine Symphony, soon becomes one of the walking wounded as the work develops bombastic pomp. The final stick in the mud pages may be loud but they are not glorious. Do not hold this against the whole work as it is only in this movement that Herbert succumbs to failure.

The orchestra are excellent and rather like the Razumovsky orchestra with whom Brion has recorded the lighter Herbert (and Sousa) are clearly getting to know the style and the man. More early Americana please. Pity this is not at Naxos price. It would have fitted aptly into the American Classics series.


Rob Barnett


Ian Lace

Rob Barnett

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