December 1999 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

Bernard HERRMANN at Fox Vol 2: The Garden of Evil; Prince of Players; King of the Khyber RiflesVARÈSE SARABANDE VSD-6053 [71:29]

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Here is an object lesson in how to present a soundtrack anthology. The music on this album comes from three consecutive films Bernard Herrmann scored for 20th Century Fox between October 1953 and November 1954, so that, rather than being the usual Hermann compilation, it focuses the famous Fox searchlights on one very specific period of the composer's career. The time was a turning point in film history, as in an attempt to win back audiences from television, Fox had just launched the CinemaScope process with The Robe (1953). Each of the three films featured on this album was shot in CinemaScope, Technicolor and four channel magnetic stereophonic sound. They were spectacular, prestige productions, and Alfred Newman, the Musical Director at Fox, essentially 'cast' Herrmann as the ideal composer to capture the larger than life essence of these films. Herrmann had already scored one the studio's previous three CinemaScope productions, Beneath the 12 Mile Reef, while King of the Khyber Rifles reunited Herrmann with director Henry King, for whom the composer had recently scored The Snows of Kilimanjaro.

Ever the anglophile, Herrmann was attracted to the idea of a Kiplingesque adventure promised by Rifles, through the drama of colonial India (with California doubling as the sub-continent) turned-out to owe more to the conventional Hollywood swashbuckler than English literature. The score is represented by six selections - sadly missing is the wonderfully frenetic cue 'The Attack on the Mountain Stronghold', recorded by Charles Gerhardt with the National Philharmonic and issued on The Spectacular World of Classic Film Scores sampler disc. And there is room for it here, so I wonder what went wrong? Were the original tapes damaged beyond salvation? The main title is bold and adventurous, with thundering drums and rousing fanfares - the galloping horsemen which fill the screen when new version of The Mummy moves from ancient Egypt to the 1920's appears to be a homage to this opening. 'The Ruins' is slow and atmospheric, introducing a striking romantic theme on strings just before the fade out. With its brooding, monolithic power, 'The Storm' seems to anticipate Herrmann's writing for the Ray Harryhausen fantasy pictures he would score a few years later. 'The Dunes' interweaves suspense with a love theme which suggests Hitchcock, while the final cue, 'Nocturne' is a typically lovely example of Herrmann's gift for romantic melancholy, a cousin perhaps to Mrs Muir and a parallel 'road' to that taken in Fahrenheit 451.

Prince of Players was a very different sort of film, an accomplished historical drama about the American theatre in the 19th century, and which marked the directorial Philip Dunne, writer of The Ghost and Mrs Muir. Herrmann wrote an appropriately majestic and theatrical 'Prelude', while the remaining 6 selections are typically dark and romantically Herrmannesque. 'The Closet' is especially bleak, while 'Homecoming' suggests stately foreboding. The somber mood continues with 'The Dressing Room', while 'The Dawn' is evidently fiery and bloodshot. 'The Confession' is eloquently made, rising with a tender and lyrical voice before 'John Brown' brings a coldness to the end of the suite which closes without resolution.

The vast majority of the album (over 46 minutes) is given over to 24 cues from Garden of Evil. This was Herrmann's first western, a visually stunning New Mexico location shot drama in the tradition of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It doesn't sound like it though, for Herrmann was on typically Herrmanesque from. This could as easily be the music to a Hitchcock thriller: look over the edge of 'The Chasm' and you may well get vertigo. This is pulsating, dynamic, starkly effective scoring, western as psychological noir thriller, we are on dangerous ground indeed. To list each track would be superfluous. However 'Me-Mue' is a scene-setting cantina song performed by Rita Moreno, which is, as the accompanying booklet notes, 'as close as the score ever gets to authentic Mexican music'. This is a very good score indeed. If it is not one of Herrmann's very best, and Herrmann's very best are among the best ever written, it is still a fine example of classic film scoring. The only thing that might put one off is that, if you already have a good selection of Herrmann scores in your collection you could just find this overly familiar. Certainly all the Herrmann trademarks are present and correct, and there is nothing startling different here to that which can be found in the composer's more famous films scores. It may be a strange thing to say for such dark, unsettling and malevolent music, but it is all rather comfortably familiar.

While the sound is not up to the standards of a good modern recording, listeners who have only seen these old films on television may be astonished by the quality. The sound is in true stereo (remixed by Brian Risner from the original 35mm elements) with the instruments well defined in a wide sound-stage. Hiss is to a minimum, and while there is not the detail or dynamic range we now expect, the sound is full and rich, with the quieter passages coming off very well indeed, and even the loudest moments escaping with barely a hint of distortion. I have heard recordings made a quarter of a century sound nowhere near as good as this. It is a sad fact that the movies went small again and eventually dropped the original CinemaScope specification for multi-channel hi-fidelity sound, with the result that some younger fans now operate under the delusion that George Lucas first brought a consideration for good quality sound to the cinema.

Jon Burlingame's booklet notes are concisely written and packed with information, placing the scores within the context of Herrmann's career, and the history of 20th Century Fox, with admirable clarity. Album Producer Nick Redman is due considerable praise, and with a weighty 71 minutes running time the only possible grumble can be that it is a shame the budget didn't stretch to reproducing the illustrative stills and poster art in (techni)colour. Certainly every true Herrmann aficionado will want, and should buy this collection. However, it must be said that last year the Marco Polo label released a brand new recording coupling Garden of Evil with Prince of Players, and if sound quality is more important to you than the authenticity of having the original soundtracks, then that really is the album to have. Of course, if you can afford it, buy both: you can never really have too many discs of the wonderful music of Bernard Herrmann in your collection.


Gary S. Dalkin


Gary S. Dalkin

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