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:

  1. Wonderful music by one of the great hollywood composers!


John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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 John 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.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa