How times change. When Charles Gerhardt’s similarly
entitled pioneering album ‘The Sea Hawk’, the first in the RCA series, ‘Classic
Film Scores’, released through the 1970s, it was barely mentioned in Gramophone
except in the film music section that was routinely relegated to the back pages.
In those days, Korngold was sniffily regarded as "more corn than gold".
Now not only has Korngold become respectable and has made it to front page status
of Gramophone (March 2002 edition) but this new recording of the ‘Tudor/Elizabethan’
film music by Korngold recorded by André Previn has actually been awarded
the accolade of Recording of the Month. [I have to ask myself whether the Gramophone
reviewer, Adrian Edwards, has ever heard the Gerhardt recording?]
I have to say straight out that this new recording disappoints.
Patrick Russ has arranged the suites so that too many slow sections are strung
together in Elizabeth and Essex for instance, and Previn’s slow tempi
in the slower sections of The Sea Hawk do not help either. Consequently
the vitality of Korngold’s exuberant scores tends to be drained. This recording
cannot displace the Gerhardt recording that still sounds stunning today, recorded
by the National Philharmonic Orchestra, a crack recording ensemble assembled
from the cream of the London orchestras, under concert master Sidney Sax, and
recorded in the Kingsway Hall and engineered by Kenneth Wilkinson. You might
find difficulty in tracking down these albums (they were later reissued in CD
format) but they really are worth tracking down. RCA should be persuaded to
re-release them in the latest technology sound!
But to return to the new Previn disc. The sound quality is
very good, there is much to enjoy and there is some music that was not included
in the RCA series (although Korngold fans can catch up on these by buying dedicated
score albums from Varèse Sarabande etc.).
Incidentally it was good to see, in the booklet notes, due
reference given to Korngold’s hard-working orchestrators at Warners: including
Ray Heindorf and, particularly, Hugo Friedhofer.
Marc Bridle adds:-
It was once said that if Mozart were alive today he would be writing film music. Whether they would have sounded like Korngold's sweeping scores for these Errol Flynn 'swashbucklers' (or 'schwanzbuchlers' as Korngold called them) is an imponderable question. What is certain is that if Max Steiner was the natural heir to Wagner (the Ring, after all, is the beginning of modern film music) then Korngold was the first truly great composer to write for films in the talking era. His influence continues to this day, notably in the film scores of John Williams.
Korngold's film music, unlike Williams', closely resembled in style his own classical compositions. The love theme from Elizabeth and Essex, for example, could so easily have been lifted from the pages of Korngold's own violin concerto - it has a similar aching beauty - and the great brass fanfares of The Sea Hawk are reminiscent of Korngold's Symphony. And there is nothing more moving on this disc than the 'Sold into Slavery' excerpt from Captain Blood, pure and quintessential Romanticism. Wagner's own use of the leitmotif, so crucial to the musical development of the Ring, is brazenly taken up by Korngold in all of his scores placing Korngold firmly in the Wagnerian tradition which Steiner mastered so wonderfully in his score for the Errol Flynn film The Charge of the Light Brigade.
Korngold's greatness as a film composer, however, lies in his ability to sustain drama, and few composers before or since were as successful in creating the tension of the on screen play-off as Korngold was. The duel scene in The Sea Hawk is as vivid as those he composed in 1938 for The Adventures of Robin Hood (unfortunately not included on this disc), the panache of the writing simply irresistible. There can be no greater compliment to Korngold's music than the fact that every one of these scores rekindles memories of the films themselves. It is imagistic in a way most modern film music simply isn't. Or maybe, they just don't make films like they used to.
The playing of the London Symphony Orchestra, one of the greatest of all film orchestras, is superlative with rich string tone and golden brass. Previn's conducting is exciting generating considerable tension throughout, as one might expect from him, aided by a full and powerful recording by DG. This is, in short, a superb disc in every way.
Gary Dalkin adds
I admit to being divided between Mark and Ian's opinions.
The LSO are one of the world's premiere orchestras for film music,
and in its own right this is a fine album. Previn was after all both
an exceptional film composer in his own right, and the principle conductor
of the LSO in the 1970's. He knows just how to bring out the best
out of both the orchestra and the material. Of course now that Korngold
has been reinstated by the classical establishment there are good
solid commercial reasons for releasing such a programme as this. I
my only doubt is whether, considering as Ian notes the existence of
the superlative Classic Film Scores recordings and the more complete
Korngold scores on Varèse Sarabande, there is really a good
artistic justification as well,. While the mainstream classical audience
who has not so far collected this repertoire might be served by this
issue, to dedicated film music buffs it is a case of "been there,
done that." In some cases almost 30 years ago, for this is where
the modern revival of interest in orchestral film music began. Rather
more welcome would have been some classic film music which has not
yet benefited from a modern recording. Either one of Previn's own
scores such as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1960), or perhaps
a masterpiece from the great Miklós Rózsa. Still, what
we have here is fine. It's just a shame its such a safe choice.
Gary S. Dalkin