January 2004 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Gary S. Dalkin
Managing Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

index page/ monthly listings / January /


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EDITOR’s RECOMMENDATION January 2004

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On Dangerous Ground  
Music composed and conducted by Bernard Herrmann
  Viola d'Amore Played by Virginia Majewski
  Available on FDMCD Vol. 6, No. 18 ;
Running time: 49.26
Available from: Film Score Monthly, 8503 Washington Boulevard, Culver City, CA90232; Tel: 1-888-345-6335; overseas: 310-253-9595; fax: 310-253-9588 e-mail: Info@filmscoremonthly.com

dangerous ground

Note: According to Film Score Monthlyís release notes: "This entire CD has been mastered from acetate playback discs, the only surviving source for this recording. Surface noise is inherent in the transfers, and is especially noticeable in cues marked *. Every effort has been undertaken to improve the sound quality without compromising the natural ambience." The full track listing follows below the review, along with FSMís press release.

The first thing to say is that this is a recording from 1951, so it never would have had the fidelity of a more recent recording. The second is that the sound is very variable, and FSM have been honest in noting the sources and inadequacies of the sound quality. The audio is generally thin, prone to hiss, and especially on the tracks noted * replete with very noticeable surface noise. It is certainly the poorest sounding FSM disc I have heard. As producer Lukas Kendall says in the booklet: "Iíve never written liner notes like this before: Iím sorry. I wish this album sounded better. It doesnít. It sounds like this. If you want to return it, youíre nuts, because this is one of the greatest scores ever written. We could erase that horrible surface noise: itís just a matter of EQ and filtering. You could do it on any home computer. By the end a clarinet sounds like a synthesizer. It throws the baby out with the bath water and leaves a sterile clouded sound Ė all because someone doesnít like surface noise."

So there you have it, and as Kendall concludes, "The only other choice is memory."

What we have here is a major Bernard Herrmann score for a minor classic noir thriller. I donít think for a minute this is one of the greatest scores ever written, but it is a landmark in film music in that it is Herrmannís first full action/thriller score following a decade in which he scored mainly drama (Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Jane Eyre, Anna and the King) and fantasy (The Devil and Daniel Webster, The Ghost and Mrs Muir, The Day The Earth Stood Still). His only previous thriller was Hangover Square, a tortured psychological melodrama which Herrmann approached at least in part in the 1940ís tradition of the concerto score (Dangerous Moonlight, etc). Thus On Dangerous Ground is to be celebrated for introducing Herrmann the action composer, and for delivering a work which laid the foundations of much great film music to come.

Herrmann devotes will hear a lot in this soundtrack which will sound familiar; the pungent brass, the driving ostenatos, the small cell figures endlessly restated to a pitch of frenetic agitation. The furious opening to the "Prelude" anticipates the composerís The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and lets the listener know that Herrman is now on very different ground to his previous scores. Dangerous ground indeed.

A "Nocturne" is more in keeping with Herrmannís work of the period; a melancholy reflection which could have been at home in The Ghost and Mrs Muir, but for a more sleazy big city orchestration. A "Pastoral" may suggest relaxed romance, but there is a tension to the music evocative of the forest sequence in Vertigo. "Hunt Scherzo" offers a variation on the "Prelude" and looks forward to the more ferocious and much acclaimed "Death Hunt" music, while "Snowstorm/The Silence" is an exercise in desperate tension and mounting, string driven peril. So urgent and menacing is the string writing in parts of this cue the listener must think back to either the Sinfonietta (1936), or forward to Psycho.

"Blindness" is a lovely romantic set-piece featuring the viola díamore playing of Virginia Majewski, and a typically yearning Herrmann love theme. Though romance soon gives way to the more unsettled "Fright", again with the viola díamore characterising the heroine. The romantic side of the score continues through "Faith" and "The Searching Heart", before a slow building suspense sequence which combines four shorter cues leads to the blistering "Death Hunt". This must be the definitive act set-piece of the early part of Herrmannís film career, and music which in its relentless fury raised the benchmark for future action scores.

"Huntís End" is a further set-piece, this time one of grimly determined malevolence and foreboding. "Grief" offers an impassioned melody not a world away in mood of Herrmannís other major score of 1952, the nostalgic Snows of Kilimanjiro. The dark sensibility continues through "The Winter Walk" and "The Parting/The Return/The City/Finale"; music which moves from loss to lugubrious suspense and back to love fulfilled and a triumphant climax in classic Herrmann romantic style.

Two bonus cues offer an alternative take of the "Prelude" and a 2.13 long track of Herrmann instructing the orchestra and recording parts of the score. As usual with Film Score monthly packaging and presentation are excellent.

This landmark score is of major importance for all serious followers of Bernard Herrmannís music, and now that I have the disc I wouldnít want to be without it. That said, and perhaps philistine as I am, I do find the sound quality, or lack thereof, off-putting and can not imagine playing this disc often for pleasure. While music and performances are of a very high standard the unfortunate sound quality is a barrier to fully enjoying and appreciating Herrmannís achievement. This is after all, dynamic, visceral music; and the action cues at least are intended to be felt and have their impact through sheer physical force. Much as I recommend serious fans adding this disc to their collection, I also wish for a modern state of the art re-recording so we can fully feel the sheer raw aggression of the action writing, and the ravishing beauty of the romantic scoring. Nevertheless a most commendable and important release.

Gary Dalkin

**** 4

FSM Press Release

Released by Special Arrangement with Turner Classic Movies Music

Bernard Herrmann's career has no shortage of landmarks: Citizen Kane, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Vertigo, Psycho, Taxi Driver -- plus music for concert, television and radio. One of his greatest achievements is On Dangerous Ground (1952), a film noir produced by John Houseman and directed by Nicholas Ray, for which Herrmann wrote perhaps his quintessential score: furious chase music on the one hand, and heartfelt warmth on the other.

On Dangerous Ground stars Robert Ryan as a hard-boiled cop -- with a habit of brutalizing suspects -- sent from the big city to the snowbound countryside, where he must capture a dangerous murderer and rapist. Ryan becomes involved with a sympathetic blind woman, played by Ida Lupino, but when the blind woman turns out to be the murderer's sister, Ryan finds his ruthless pursuit at odds with his burgeoning emotions.

Ryan's character is expressed by drivingly rhythmic music with simple, triadic harmony and the conspicuous presence of a steel plate in the percussion section -- and the eventual appearance of eight virtuoso horns in the climactic "Death Hunt." Lupino's placid, sensitive character is evoked by a heartfelt, lyrical solos of the unusual string instrument, the viola d'amore, played by Virginia Majewski -- much more The Ghost and Mrs. Muir than Psycho.

This CD features Herrmann's complete masterwork in chronological order. Unfortunately, master tapes to RKO productions are long since destroyed, and this CD has been mastered from acetate discs in the Bernard Herrmann collection at the University of California at Santa Barbara. IMPORTANT: Although these discs have been transferred and denoised by specialists, the sound quality is entirely in mono. Many of the most important cues have been mastered from 16" 33 1/3 rpm discs in excellent sound (including the "Prelude" and major chase cues), but the remainder of the cues exist only on 12" 33 1/3 rpm discs with a great deal of surface noise. We have made every effort to improve the sound quality without distorting the music.

Liner notes are by Christopher Husted.

Track Listing

  • 1 Prelude 1:23
  • 2 Solitude* 1:11
  • 3 Violence* 0:32
  • 4 Nocturne* 2:01
  • 5 Pastorale 2:22
  • 6 Hunt Scherzo 2:44
  • 7 Snowstorm/The Silence 3:36
  • 8 The House* 0:40
  • 9 Blindness 3:38
  • 10 Fright 2:15
  • 11 Faith 2:11
  • 12 The Searching Heart 1:39
  • 13 The Whispering 1:09
  • 14 Dawn/The Idiot/Fear/The Cabin 5:41
  • 15 The Death Hunt 2:22
  • 16 The Hunt's End 2:12
  • 17 Grief 0:55
  • 18 The Winter Walk* 1:34
  • 19 The Parting*/The Return*/The City/Finale 6:04

Total Time: 44:46

Bonus Tracks

  • 20 Prelude (alternate take) 1:22
  • 21 Outtakes 2:13

Total Time: 3:38
Total Disc Time: 48:24

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