Herrmann: Film Music (CD review)
"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.
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.