Herrmann: Film Music (CD review)

Hangover Square; "Concerto Macabre"; Citizen Kane. Orla Boylan, soprano; Martin Roscoe, piano; Rumon Gamba, BBC Philharmonic. Chandos CHAN 10577.

"Herrmann never regarded himself as a 'mere' film composer; rather, he thought of himself as a composer who worked in film." --Gunther Kogebehn

Conductor and composer Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975) got his big break in Hollywood when Orson Welles asked him to do the score for his 1941 classic Citizen Kane. According to Herrmann, that was his best music ever, and it was downhill thereafter. He was teasing, of course, but he had a point. His soundtrack score for Citizen Kane really is among the best music ever composed for any motion picture, maybe even surpassing Herrmann's work for Hitchcock on films like Vertigo and Psycho. Oh, sure, there are more individually memorable movie themes one can name--Gone with the Wind, Doctor Zhivago, and the like--but I can't think of a single movie with such a large collection of remarkable music cues for specific characters, scenes, and sequences as Kane.

Anyway, the present disc includes Herrmann's scores for two movies, Hangover Square and Citizen Kane, both performed by conductor Rumon Gamba and the BBC Philharmonic as though they were doing them for the movies' original soundtracks. I suspect they've done this kind of thing before.

Hangover Square (1944) is all dark, moody, and eerie, a film-noir murder mystery in the mold of The Lodger or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The main character is an unhinged concert pianist, giving Herrmann a chance to compose not just a bleak, spare, atmospheric background score but a brief piano concerto as well. It was all the rage in the early Forties to include pseudo piano concertos in movies, ever since the resounding success of the popular Warsaw Concerto in 1941's Dangerous Moonlight. Herrmann wrote his own mini concerto in the style of Liszt's Totentanz, and Stephen Sondheim has said that Herrmann's music for Hangover Square was a major influence on his writing for Sweeney Todd.  Interesting how art imitates art. After the music for the movie, pianist Martin Roscoe performs the twelve-minute Concerto Macabre with the BBC orchestra, and heard in its entirety the Concerto turns out to be not bad at all, although a rather gloomy affair as the title indicates.

The real star of the show, however, is the music for Citizen Kane, almost fifty minutes of it. Herrmann used the old idea of the leitmotif in the movie, the association of a musical theme with a particular character or scene. In this case, he says he used several notes from the ancient hymn Dies irae repeated throughout the film. Gamba and the BBC Philharmonic do the music justice, big and melodramatically or hushed and subdued as the occasion demands. If you are at all familiar with Citizen Kane, as I imagine most readers of this site would be, you can easily picture each piece of action as you listen to the music.

Chandos recorded the album in 24-bit/96 kHz sound to good advantage. The 2009 studio sonics are as bold and momentous as the music (and as spare and chilling when it needs to be). The audio engineers mike it fairly close up for maximum impact and effect. There's a very wide stereo spread, good definition, if a little overly sharp at times, with still a reasonably decent orchestral depth. The sound reminds me somewhat of Decca's Phase 4 recordings of the Sixties, although not so compartmentalized, prompting me to put on and listen to several remastered Phase 4 discs I own that also feature the music of Bernard Herrmann.

Of further merit, the Chandos disc contains over seventy-seven minutes of music, a healthy dose, and includes a beautifully illustrated booklet insert of notes and information.


1 comment:

Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa