Music Webmaster Len Mullenger: Len@musicweb.force9.co.uk
BERNARD HERRMANN on PHASE 4
by Richard R. Adams
Bernard Herrmann was lucky to have lived long enough to witness the cult that grew up around his music in the early 1970s. Most composers from Hollywood's so-called "Golden Era" had died or were living in relative obscurity by that time (i.e. Hugo Friedhofer, Roy Webb, H.J. Salter, etc.) Herrmann and his colleague Miklos Rozsa were luckier in that they were able to make new recordings of much of their film music therefore making it available for new audiences to discover and appreciate. But whereas Rozsa's magnificent recordings for the Deutsch Gramophone/Polygram labels have been out of the catalogs for years, Herrmann's recordings for Decca Phase Four have recently been reissued in beautifully remastered editions which provide fascinating insights into how a great film composer rethought his music when preparing it for a record rather than a movie soundtrack.
A word of warning is in order: For those who like their film score re-recordings to match the performance on the soundtrack as closely as possible, these recordings will disappoint if not outright infuriate. In almost every performance in this series, Herrmann's tempos are slower and more deliberate. The playing is usually spot-on and the sound on the later discs in the series is amongst the greatest analogue recordings ever made but the interpretations are as quixotic as the music itself. As Herrmann aged his conducting became broader and more analytical. There are rewards and drawbacks to this approach but the results are undeniably fascinating in his own music.
THE GREAT HITCHCOCK MOVIE THRILLERS London 443 895-2
The oldest disc of this series is Great Movie Thrillers which was recorded in 1968 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. This is the least impressive recording in terms of sound. Evidently Decca had not yet perfected their Phase 4 technology which here has analytic detail (due to extreme multi-miking) without any of the ambient warmth found in the later recordings of this series. The very dry sound is acceptable and even adds an appropriate edge to the string sound in the Psycho Suite. This disc consists of suites from several of Herrmann's scores for Alfred Hitchcock's thrillers. This is the one disc in the series where the performances are all uniformly excellent. There is an urgent intensity to this performance of Psycho which is absent from his complete recording on Unicorn. Vertigo is a more ripely romantic than Muir Mathieson's soundtrack recording and I have yet to hear a more brilliant performance of the overture to North by Northwest than the version here. What has made this disc so valuable to Herrmann fans over the years is the inclusion of suites from two rarely heard Herrmann scores: Marnie and The Trouble With Harry. The Harry score has been reworked into a concert suite titled A Portrait of Hitch which perfectly mirrors the droll black humor of the film itself. The music from Marnie is glorious and a better interpretation would be hard to imagine. Esa-Pekka Salonen's disc of Herrmann scores for Sony contains many of these same suites in much better sound but Herrmann's interpretations are more biting. The remastering sounds very faithful to the original LPs with no obvious attempts made to "upgrade" the sound.
BERNARD HERRMANN GREAT FILM MUSIC London 443 899-2
The Glorious Cover Art from the original Fantasy Film World of Bernard Herrmann LP has been used for this disc which features all the original music on that LP plus the extended suite from The Three Worlds of Gulliver. This disc was a best-seller in its day and was highly praised for its sound which now sounds very unnatural but undeniably spectacular and atmospheric. Herrmann's imaginative use of sonority and his unique grouping of instruments is what characterizes most of his scores for the fantasy genre. Journey to the Center of the Earth does away with the strings and emphasizes those instruments with lower registers including a massive Cathedral organ that is thrillingly used. The original soundtrack was recently reissued and it's enjoyable to listen to but the older sound is a definite liability. Also, this score has only the thinnest amount of thematic material. It is truly a study in sonorities and the suite Herrmann assembled for this recording works perfectly. The interpretation is weighty but appropriately so. The same can't be said of either The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad or The Day the Earth Stood Still suites. The opening prelude to Sinbad is taken at about half the speed of the soundtrack and at such a labored pace, the bareness of the musical material really becomes apparent. The splendid music for the dual with the skeleton loses much of its ironic humor and here just sounds strange. The Day the Earth Stood Still suffers as well, particularly the music for Radar and Gort which seems to drag on forever. The original soundtrack of The Day the Earth Stood Still is infinitely preferable to this rerecording. Things improve tremendously with Fahrenheit 451. This is unquestionably one of Herrmann's most beautiful scores and here he conducts with sensitivity and tenderness. Salonen includes a longer suite so it's essential listening too but Herrmann's performance remains the most moving. Another classic is the pastiche score for Gulliver. For such a reportedly cantankerous and over-bearing man, Herrmann did have a marvelous sense of humor and no where is that put to better use than in this rich and very tuneful score. Here again the performance is broader than on the soundtrack but none-the-worse for being so. The mastering is beautifully handled and this is an essential purchase.
BERNARD HERRMANN: MUSIC FROM GREAT FILM CLASSICS London 448-948-2
Gulliver was originally coupled with two other Ray Harryhausen scores on it's LP release: Mysterious Island and Jason and the Argonauts. Those scores have now found there way onto this Great Film Classics disc which also includes selections from Welles Raises Kane, Jane Eyre, The Devil and Daniel Webster and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. The two fantasy scores are less interesting than Herrmann's best in this genere, primarily because the musical material is so thin. I do love Herrmann's reworking of a fugue by Krebs which in Mysterious Island is used to depict a giant chicken. Far more impressive than either of those scores is the music Herrmann wrote for Jane Eyre which starred Orson Welles but was directed by Robert Stevenson. Herrmann appears to have poured his whole heart and soul into this score and its not surprising considering his great love for the work of the Bronte sisters. The suite assembled from the film is ideal in that it includes most of the big set pieces while remains very tight in construction. This is one suite that would be ideal for concert performances. Welles Raises Kane was written as a concert suite and it should be played much more often. Unfortunately, Herrmann doesn't play it complete here, he omits the very nostalgic Meditation and the tempos are much too slow throughout. Fortunately, Herrmann's much more brilliant earlier recording of this suite on Unicorn is available coupled with his score for The Devil and Daniel Webster, excerpts from which also appear on this disc. Again, the Unicorn is preferable. Finally, this disc contains two moody excepts from Kilamanjaro which are beautiful played. As with the other discs, the remasterings are excellent and if this disc is uneven, it still is essential for the inclusion of Jane Eyre.
GREAT BRITISH FILM MUSIC London 448 954-2
GREAT SHAKESPEARE FILMS London 455 156-2
As conductor of the CBS Symphony Orchestra in the 1930s and 40s, Herrmann promoted British music of which he remained a lifelong champion throughout his life. It was a wonderful idea to ask him to record these British film scores as he was obviously sympathetic to this music, a lot of which had never been recorded before. It's regrettable that the offer didn't come earlier in his career when Herrmann's conducting was more urgent and flexible. Most of the performances on this disc have been surpassed by other interpretations, particularly Arthur Bliss' Things To Come score which sounds too heavy and slow. The same is true of Bax's Oliver Twist score. Compare Kenneth Alwyn's recording of Fagin's romp with Herrmann's and you'll experience quite a jolt - the Alwyn having the much lighter touch. Walton's Escape Me Never and Vaughan Williams' 49th Parallel have been recorded elsewhere but Constant Lambert's Anna Karenina Suite and Arthur Benjamin's An Ideal Husband are rarities and their inclusion in this program make this disc an essential purchase. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the Shakespeare disc. Each of the three suites (Shostakovich's Hamlet, Walton's Richard III and Rozsa's Julius Ceasar) are all available in more sympathetic and exciting interpretations. This disc will only satisfy those interested in hearing Herrmann's wayward and at times very interesting interpretations.