Music Webmaster Len Mullenger
FILM MUSIC RECORDINGS REVIEWS
EDITOR'S RECOMMENDATION March 1999
|Bernard HERRMANN - Citizen Kane - The Essential Collection City of Prague Philharmonic conducted by Paul Bateman and Nic Raine SILVA SCREEN 2CDs FILMXCD 308 [110:44]||
Selections from: The Man Who Knew Too Much; Citizen Kane; On Dangerous Ground; North by Northwest; The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad; The Ghost and Mrs Muir; Torn Curtain; The Twilight Zone; Marnie; The Snows of Kilimanjaro; Cape Fear; Jason and the Argonauts; The Naked and the Dead; The Day the Earth Stood Still; The Three Worlds of Gulliver; Obsession; Psycho; Mysterious Island; The Trouble with Harry; Vertigo; Taxi Driver.
The obvious question that occurred to this reviewer was - with so many outstanding recordings of Bernard Herrmann's film music, made by so many first class orchestras, under conductors of the calibre of Charles Gerhardt, Elmer Bernstein, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Joel McNeely etc, not to mention Bernard Herrmann himself, is there room for yet another anthology - and, if so, what extra merit does this new album have?
The answer is threefold. First of all the sound is stunning - well up to Silva Screen's very best allowing full textural clarity of these generally splendid performances set in a full and wide perspective. Secondly the majority of the performances of the better known works equal if not surpass any performance already available: the much recorded Psycho suite has some interesting rubato that I think Bernie would have approved of; and the equally oft-recorded Vertigo sounds superb, so too does the Marnie Prelude; and A Portrait of Hitch (The Trouble with Harry) can stand beside Herrmann's own Decca recording but with the added advantage of superior modern sound; and, for me, the Christopher Palmer's suite Night Piece for Saxophone and Orchestra assembled from Taxi Driver has never sounded better. Thirdly there is the adventurous choice of material with some selections rarely committed to disc.
The programme's opens with the thrilling, rarely recorded Prelude from The Man Who Knew Too Much - a menacing, sinister piece with a hint of its earlier Northern African setting. A very cheeky, perky, characterful rendition of the Citizen Kane follows - a brilliant performance this one! On Dangerous Ground is represented by a five-movement suite so that we have the chance to evaluate more of the music than was on the Charles Gerhardt/ RCA anthology. Here we have the exciting horn chase music shared between the "Prelude" and "The Hunt" cues in between we have some of Herrmann's warmest and sympathetic writing, for the loving and caring character of the blind Mary, that anticipates his Vertigo and Marnie music. On balance though, I prefer the sheer excitement generated by Gerhardt.
It is good to have the romantic interlude, "Conversation Piece" between Cary Grant and Eve Marie Saint, set aboard a train in North by Northwest (as well as the urgent, colourful "Prelude"). "Conversation Piece" is another rarely recorded item. The music is full of sexual tension and the motion of the train is subtly apparent too. Herrmann's lovely impressionistic seascape and romantic music for The Ghost and Mrs Muir is beautifully played - so too is the Memory Waltz from The Snows of Kilimanjaro - in fact I think this is the most persuasive performance of this piece that I have heard. The lovely waltz from Obsession is also persuasive but I do wish room could have been made for the compelling and chilling music that Herrmann created for the scenes in which Cliff Robertson delivers the ransome money.
Another welcome addition is the score that never was - the Hitchcock- rejected music from Torn Curtain - represented here by a powerful three movement suite cold, sinister and ferocious. The music for the famous scene where Gromek is killed at the farmhouse is particularly chilling and this performance is every bit as compelling as the recent more complete Varèse Sarabande recording. Cape Fear was another dread, claustrophobic, atmospheric, Herrmann score and is represented here by a three movement suite - another welcome rarity.
Entirely new to me was the music for The Naked and the Dead about incidents in the Pacific theatre of operations in World War II - full of military swagger, with much brass an drums but ultimately cold and cruel.
Hermann's more exotic scores are represented by rousing and colourful readings of The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad Main Title; and the Prelude to Jason and the Argonauts, the latter's heroic splendour and assertive confidence is powerfully conveyed. Five cues of music represent the Mysterious Island score with the opening cue memorable for its huge stereophonically placed cymbal clashes. The music representing the horrific giant monsters is typically Herrmann-graphic.
Another interesting rarity is the Overture to The Three Worlds of Gulliver mixing typical British pride and splendour with dainty figures for the diminutive Lilliputians and ponderous heavy ones for the giants of Brobdingnag. Sci-fi is represented by a compelling performance of the music from The Day the Earth Stood Still with its advanced (for its day) electronic instrumentation, counterbalanced by a brilliant evocation of "Radar" using just piano. A clutch of quirky, grotesque but always intriguing figures makes up the cue "Themes" from The Twilight Zone - how many of today's sci-fi and fantasy scores have been influenced by them I wonder?
And a view from Rob Barnett
It was only a matter of time before Silva Screen got round to Herrmann. The strange thing is that it took so long. This is an ambitious and far from cliché-ed collection and the result is creditable and attractive. It is not especially generous in timing, at least not against the standards Silva have set for themselves. Their collections series (two for the price of one) usually manage more than an hour; often as much as 70 minutes, per disc. This offers less than an hour each disc.
Lacking also are any stills from the films nor any photo of Herrmann not that either of these is any real hardship! The cover illustration gives a more than passable impression of Xanadu's mysterious opulence. David Wishart's intelligent and informatively readable English-only notes (12pp) compactly profile the essentials of each film, placing it in time and with methodical references to plot and leading actors. All recording details are well given though it is a pity that it is not easier than it is to find out which tracks are conducted by Bateman and which by Raine.
CD1 begins confidently with the splendidly crashing prelude from The Man Who Knew Too Much. The Kane Overture is brightness, nimble jollity and innocence but gradually passing through boozy Prokofiev and Shostakovich like moments into a grandly Hispanic bombastic march compleet with a sly reference to The Conquering Hero. There seemed to be a lack of crispness in the performance but there is no lack of gusto.
I have no doubt been spoilt by the Gerhardt recording of the Prelude On Dangerous Ground. The Praguers are no match though enjoyable in their own right. This collection offers five movements from the film. Blindness is a viola serenade of inward tenderness exploring Herrmann's slightly cool emotional 'no man's land'. The silence is conjured through Sibelian rustling and high pitched strings. The hunt has those galloping French horns conveying pounding chaotic energy like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The finale opens in an Iberian spectral beauty. There is a glorious harp 'melt' à la Marnie and the track ends in cinematic grandeur.
The thudding drums of North by North West do not have the snap and definition of Laurie Johnson's rushed performance. Many of the contours have been chamfered and I missed that roughness and violence. The recording is excellent though and for first time I was struck by the downward swooping glissando towards the end of the movement clearly recalling Elgar Symphony No. 2 a work which Herrmann no doubt conducted with the CBS in the 1930s or at the very least knew from scores he imported into the US. Then comes the sensuous Conversation Piece with its soft beating heart and tastefully swooning strings. This is exceptionally well done and is one of the stand-out tracks in the collection.
This contrasts with fine sparkle of the slightly breathless Seventh Voyage of Sinbad main title. No lassitude here at all!
The Ghost and Mrs Muir's prelude is a great surging uprising projected through the strings. This sense of marine and emotional 'welling up' is brilliantly conjured. Very fine. Then comes the proto-Mahlerian Adagietto which is very English, brittle in the winter sunshine. The bells at 2:20 might almost be Housman's 'Noisy Bells'.
Herrmann joyed in hunt motifs. Here is another one (though rather lethargic) decking out Torn Curtain or it would have but for Hitchcock's rejection of the slate-grey score. The Gromek cue has a floating menace while The Killing is notable for its understatement and little whip-like figures.
As a break from film The Twilight Zone takes us into TV. The twitteringly intense theme has found its way into popular culture. People know it without knowing who earth Bernard Herrmann was. High tribute. This version emphasises the guitar part. The textures are interesting and splendidly menacing. It is slightly like Holst's Neptune and of course Herrmann knew Holst's Planets and conducted it in a reputedly rather elephantine recording for Decca Phase Four.
The Marnie prelude instantly sweeps us into the irresistibly chilly romance with a string theme that at least once reminds us of Tchaikovsky's Pathéthique Symphony. The performance and recording catch a lump in the throat and a shiver down the spine. This is a Classic Herrmann creation and is totally cherishable. This is another track for sampling. The Snows Of Kilimanjaro's Memory Waltz is a music box type dance of the type we know from The Magnificent Ambersons. It is given excellent pacing and swing with twists and turns which occasionally look in a slightly self-satisfied way towards Korngold.
Cape Fear pitches in with another death hunt with barking patterned horns and shuddering strings. The other tracks are haunted (The School and Panic) and the final track of the three is all decay and crestfallen horns: lichen trailing off castle walls. It concludes with the brass (sounding like escapees from the more Sibelian moments in Bax's Fifth Symphony) on a very good day whooping triumphantly. The disc closes with the bombastic stalking march-prelude from Jason and the Argonauts. This is all a bit empty. Herrmann on cruise control.
The second disc opens with the rare Prelude from The Naked And The Dead. This is predictable stuff and gets up where the Jason prelude sat down. Militaristic hammering and clamant brass, calls to battle and slippery vainglory with a momentary recollection of Bliss's march from Things to Come.
The following three tracks are of music from The Day The Earth Stood Still. This is all quite nicely done though the theremin could have had more presence. Radar has a feverish edgy urgency. Just right. In fact this is probably the best recording available. The Finale and Farewell is sanely paced.
In utter contrast comes the 'big beef' pastiche Handelian teutonic march of the overture to The Three Worlds Of Gulliver. It is all glitter and the bombast offset by miniature harp concerto references. Elgar orchestrated Handel and Herrmann seems to be at ease in similar territory though he did not return there.
Back again to the world of Marnie, Ghost and Conversation Piece for the valse lente from Obsession - a 'heart's partner' to these pieces of elusive and tremulous romance. The music conveys a mood completely at odds with Psycho (five tracks) which in this performance struck me as rather slack. There is little urgency in the prelude and rainstorm music though Murder is well conveyed. It is uncompetitive with Herrmann's own performance and the recentish complete Varèse-Sarabande CD. Turning now to Mysterious Island there are five cues all well done but these mechanistic illustrations, well done though they are, impress only as clever sound pictures rather than as music. There seems to be little emotional content.
A Portrait of Hitch is an 8 minute tone poem using the music from The Trouble With Harry. This is quirky and jerky like a brutally playful Shostakovich theme. The playground song is well put across. How touchingly the players articulate the lovely innocent song at 2:12. At 3:10 Herrmann again pulls another incredible tune out of the hat. It must have been an Astrakhan hat given the distinctly Russian caste of the melody - unmissable. Much of the piece is Russian in feel with Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf not far away.
Vertigo is a very well known film and the music is represented through three tracks. The first mixes characteristic high notes with music box miniatures (prelude). Castanets are a strange but effective presence is the essentially very disturbing Nightmare. Finally The Scene D'amour is ghost-like and so cold rather like the doomed garden spirits at the end of James Elroy Flecker's Hassan blowing away into utter negation. The head pounding Tchaikovskian climax is powerfully conveyed with an especial debt to the strings welling up in spectral passion. This is very well done.
Finally we get the 8 minute long Night Piece carved from the music for his last film Taxi Driver - another irresistible score. Wonderful film music. I am so glad that it is here and lovingly 'rolled' by the reedy saxophone. The performance wants a sinister cutting edge which the legato swoopy smoothness of this account denies. Still - a nice alternative view.
In summary: this set is as good an introductory two disc anthology to Herrmann as you will find. Snap it up. If there are some miscalculations they are minor. For the rest you will be lead on to discover a much fuller legacy than better individual single CD collections (Salonen) can offer. As a two disc anthology it does not really compete with anything else on the market.
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