June 2006 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Michael McLennan
Managing Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster: Len Mullenger

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Bernard Herrmann: The Essential Film Music Collection  
Music composed by Bernard Herrmann
Music composed by Bernard Herrmann
Performed by The City of Prague Philharmonic
Conducted by Paul Bateman (with Nic Raine (3 tracks) & James Fitzpatrick (1 track))
  Available on Silva Screen (SILCD 1208)
Running Times: 69:29, 70:32

See also:

  • Alfred Hitchcock 100 Years
  • Citizen Kane: The Essential Collection
  • Bernard Herrmann: The Essential Film Music Collection> is the latest entry in Silva Screen’s series of 2CD sets devoted to famous film composers. Previous entries have been devoted to, among others, Elmer Bernstein, Maurice Jarre, Alfred Newman and Nino Rota. This Herrmann collection is not only the best I have heard so far from this series, but among the very best of the many Herrmann anthologies I have listened to over the thirty years since I became a fan of the composer.

    Herrmann’s musical genius is such that it can not be fully represented on any one album, but this set, running 2 hours and twenty minutes has the advantage of time over the usual single disc (or even LP) set to be able to give a much more comprehensive portrait than is regularly heard in such anthologies. Every facet of Herrmann’s film music is represented in a chronological survey that not only covers the majority of the major scores but also finds space for some rarities that tend to be overlooked. Thus it is something of a surprise to find the prelude from The Naked and the Dead and ‘Theme & Variations’ from Twisted Nerve. (Sometimes rarities are such for a reason.) Conversely omissions one expects to be included are The Magnificent Ambersons, The Devil and Daniel Webster, Anna and The King of Siam, Beneath the 12-Mile Reef and Journey to the Center of the Earth.

    The chronological presentation is effective because it breaks the music up well to represent different aspects of Herrmann’s musical personality. Rather than a disc comprising all fantasy music, or all Hitchcock thrillers, or all romance, there is a pleasing balance that makes the lengthy listen constantly invigorating. For instance, the melancholy romance of The Ghost and Mrs Muir gives way to the thrilling ferocity of On Dangerous Ground. This in turn leads to the other worldly textures of The Day The Earth Stood Still, which takes us into more haunting melancholy with The Snows of Kilimanjaro, before a whimsical ‘Portrait of Hitch’ from The Trouble With Harry. Those who think Herrmann only did dark suspense will rapidly need to revise their opinions.

    To keep this fairly short let’s just say, as a glimpse at the track list will confirm, that there is some of the best film music ever composed re-recorded on this album. Much of it many FMOTW readers will already have in one version or another. Yet the performances hold their own against the best previous recordings. The City of Prague Philharmonic have excelled themselves here, proving to be a first rate film music band truly capable of capturing the unique, sometimes astringent, otherwise ethereal, at times blisteringly exciting Herrmann sound. The extensive fourteen-minute suite from On Dangerous Ground has fabulously thrilling brass playing and an impact, a sense of danger: the original soundtrack can never begin to match. This is the best version of this music I have ever heard, and alone is worth the price of admission.

    The recordings likewise are full and detailed, and will please those who object to ‘classical’ style recordings of film music and those recordings wherein the music seems to fade into a haze of reverberation. Not so here. Everything is pin-sharp, bold and dynamic. The present set grew out of two Silva Screen Hitchcock albums, which as FMOTW’s own David Wishart notes, obviously contained a lot of Herrmann. From there came the idea to make up a full 2CD set. The recordings therefore date from 1994-2005, with the majority being made in 1999. Regarding the impact of the recordings David Wishart notes: “Of course the thing is though that with modern mastering techniques – and with the implementation of a little compression, the recordings have become ‘more powerful’ than even the original sessions might have suggested. James (Fitzpatrick) is a whiz at remastering.”

    Other highlights? The Ghost and Mrs Muir is sublime, The Snows of Kilmanjaro almost painful in its romantic intensity. The action and fantasy of North By North West and Mysterious Island deliver a compulsive musical rollercoaster, and Fahrenheit 451 is as tender yet icy as this music should always be.

    Does the set have any failings? Within the limitations of a 2CD set, not at all. One can always argue over the selections, but on balance the pieces here are very well chosen. On a personal level I would have liked rather more than 1.47 from what will always remain my favourite Herrmann score, Obsession. But that’s just because it’s the picture that got me into film music in the first place, and it always struck me as an injustice that this excellent movie was overshadowed by the mediocre Taxi Driver. The overshadowing continues here, with the disc closing with the eight minute long ‘Night Piece for Orchestra’. Gorgeous music, shame about the film.

    I could live without the irritating whistling theme from Twisted Nerve – most likely included here because of its recycling in Kill Bill – a fact noted in larger type on the booklet cover than the titles of Citizen Kane, Vertigo, Cape Fear and North by North West. To be fair, in his excellent booklet notes David Wishart does say listeners tend to find the music either catchy or ‘pitifully annoying’. Call me pitiful… But then set those niggles against the over two hours of outstanding recordings here and there really is nothing to put the prospective buyer off. (Well, unless you really object to the words Kill and Bill used in conjunction on a Herrmann anthology.) But seriously, this really is a superb set, with On Dangerous Ground proving one of the most exciting film music recordings anyone is likely to find this or any other year.

    Gary Dalkin

    Rating: 5



    Michael McLennan adds:-

    There seems little in the way of practical comment I can add to Gary’s review. For me, this was the first time I’d heard The Ghost and Mrs Muir, Fahrenheit 451, Snows of Kilimanjaro and many others. I knew On Dangerous Ground only through a re-recording of ‘Death Hunt’, so this was a valuable chance to hear more of that incredible score. I came off the first listen to disc one floating with inspiration – Herrmann’s talents were truly impossible to exaggerate. For those who want to broaden their understanding of the irritable Maestro, this chronological presentation of his career is a great way to approach him. Yes, there could always be more – more Obsession, more Devil and Daniel Webster, more Magnificent Ambersons, but there’s a limit to these things, and even if they were all on there, I’m sure someone would be asking for Battle of Neretva or ‘Chariot Chase’ from The Egyptian. (That someone would be me. Bring on the three-disc version!)

    A couple of warnings though. This music has naturally appeared on a number of Silva Screen compilations over the years, including Torn Curtain: The Classic Film Music of Bernard Herrmann (Silva America SSD 1051) and Citizen Kane: The Essential Film Music of Bernard Herrmann (Silva Screen, 2CDs, FILMXCD308). If you’ve drunk of Silva’s Herrmann collection of recordings before, rest assured, this album has too. Which doesn’t detract at all from it being a superb collection, especially if you didn’t buy either of those. A link to Ian Lace’s review of the Citizen Kane compilation shows how much we liked it back then in its earlier incarnation.

    The other thing to warn is that those who normally dismiss film music re-recordings by the City of Prague Philharmonic should sit back and re-assess their position after hearing this. The execution is strong throughout – superb in a number of places, well on par with previous recordings by Herrmann himself and Elmer Bernstein. I personally prefer the acoustics and performance of Charles Gerhardt with the National Philharmonic Orchestra (‘The Death Hunt’ will never sound better than on RCA Victor 0707-2-RG), or Esa-Pekka Salonen with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (the incredible release on Sony Classical SK 62700 – an essential for Herrmann collectors), but Paul Bateman’s work here and the mixing by James Fitzpatrick never had me reaching for the ‘stop’ button and my Herrmann shelf. And those releases don’t beat this one for the breadth of career overview.

    One of those releases that well deserves the label ‘Essential’.

    Michael McLennan

    4.5

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