In the mid-seventies, RCA released a series of now classic albums titled Classic Film Scores. Conducted by Charles Gerhardt and performed by the National Philharmonic Orchestra, a London-based studio ensemble active until late nineties, these albums were each dedicated either to a Hollwood Golden Age composer or, in three cases, complied around certain actor.
Produced by George Korngold, one of the key figures in establishing film music as an esteemed art form, these twelve albums were veritable milestones in presenting film scores on recordings.
Superbly performed and engineered with great care, the original albums made classic Hollywood film scores available in then state-of-the-art guise for a wide and enthusiastic audience. Alongside the four Bernard Herrmann albums on Decca Phase 4, the RCA series initiated the idea of re-recording classic film scores, a procedure carried further by labels such as Varèse Sarabande and Intrada, among others.
The two most widely represented composers on the RCA series were, deservedly, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Max Steiner. I addition to two albums dedicated to each composer, both of them appeared extensively on those actor-themed albums as well.
In addition to various suites, either ones compiled by their composers or specifically adapted for these recordings, Max Steiner’s 1939 score for Gone with the Wind was extended to an album-length presentation.
In some cases, original film compositions had yielded to various concert pieces of their own right. On the Gerhardt recordings, two film-based concert pieces by Korngold were included, namely the Cello Concerto in C, Op. 37 (1946), an extended version of the original piece appearing on his score for the film Deception, as well as Tomorrow, Op. 33 (1943), a tone-poem for mezzo-soprano, chorus and orchestra, originating in the film The Constant Nymph.
In addition, Bernard Herrmann’s Concerto Macabre (1945) for piano and orchestra from the film Hangover Square was included, in a version revised by the composer for these sessions with Joaquín Achúcarro, alongside the complete aria Salammbo, written for the opera scene of Citizen Kane (1941), and sung here by the young Kiri Te Kanawa.
Alongside the Korngold, Steiner and Herrmann LPs, albums devoted to the scores of Dimitri Tiomkin, Alfred Newman, Franz Waxman and Miklós Rózsa were released. Joined by multi-composer releases dedicated to Erroll Flynn, Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis, respectively, the series yielded to total twelve albums, each about forty five minutes in length.
Since late eighties, the original LPs have been available on CD as well, with some of them reissued in SACD format in Japan. However, most of the disc releases have been out of print for years, until now.
This spring, Sony Classical, the current owner of the RCA back catalogue, has compiled the complete series of the original twelve albums into a generously-priced box set. Musically, the new box is an as-is re-release, providing the listener with the original CD remasters from thirty years back.
No booklet of any kind is included, just track info and artists printed on the back side of each cardboard slipcase. The box itself comes with a stock photo of a film projector on the cover. Not much of a collector’s item per se, the music on the twelve discs, however, speaks volumes for itself.
In many cases, these recordings are still, even today, the only available versions of the music apart from the films themselves. And, speaking in general terms, also the scores re-recorded elsewhere too, have stood the test of time very well.
As one listens to Gerhard’s excerpts from Korngold’s two most iconic scores, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940), one wonders, if these scores have ever sounded as gorgeous as in these performances by the National Philharmonic Orchestra. The same can be said about the version of Gone with the Wind recorded here, although one might have hoped these sessions to have included chorus too.
Alongside the Concerto Macabre and a suite from Citizen Kane, the Herrmann album includes suites from two of the most imaginatively orchestrated scores by the composer, Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (1953) and White Witch Doctor (1953). Enhanced by the spacious clarity of the recording studio, both suites are a feast of instrumental color and invention.
Franz Waxman’s thirty-year Hollywood career gets a fine representation here, with a series of dazzling excerpts ranging from the pioneering Bride of Frankenstein (1935) to Taras Bulba (1962). Waxman’s both Academy Award winning scores, Sunset Boulevard (1950) and A Place in the Sun (1951) appear on the album too, in formidable guises.
One of the most delightful recordings in the entire series is a twelve-minute suite from Miklós Rózsa’s hauntingly dark 1947 score for The Red House. Selections from such Rózsa classics as Spellbound (1945) and The Lost Weekend (1945) are obviously included, while the epic Ben-Hur only appeared on a 1977 Decca recording by the National Philharmonic, with the composer conducting.
As a whole, Max Steiner’s contribution to the Hollywood tradition remains the most astonishing one. The sheer amount and variety of music by the Austrian-born composer is breathtaking. Alongside his magnum opus, Gone with the Wind, there is an awe-inspiring selection of suites available across five discs here.
The Bogart album opens with a spot-on presentation of the Casablanca Suite, incidentally also performed by the Vienna Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel at their Summer Night’s Concert at Schönbrunn last year. All in all, Steiner’s marvellous contributions to film noir are well covered, further demonstrated by fabulous recordings of selections from The Big Sleep (1946) and Key Largo (1948).
Another Steiner gems included in these recordings is Symphonie Moderne from Four Wives (1939). Scored for piano and orchestra, the eight-minute Symphonie is a concertante charmer, with allusions to Gershwin embedded in its genuinely Steinerian guise.
The solo part is wonderfully performed by Earl Wild, with Gerhardt and the National Philharmonic in beautiful accord with their soloist.
No Hollywood film music anthology would be complete without scores written for Westerns. From Steiner we get suites from Virginia City (1940), They Died with Their Boots On (1941) and The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948). Tiomkin’s The Big Sky (1952) is also included, alongside Newman’s The Bravados (1958).
In addition to film scores, there are a couple of studio fanfares included among the recordings as well. Alfred Newman’s iconic 20th Century Fox Fanfare (1933) gets a rousing performance here, alongside the 1953 Cinemascope Extension. In similar vein, the Selznick Fanfare and the Warner Bros. Fanfare, both written by Steiner, are most welcome additions indeed.
Two London-based choirs appear on these recordings. The Ambrosian Singers, a versatile chorus with notable appearances both on record and in the concert hall, is featured on five discs, including a tremendous performance of Strike for the Shores of Dover from The Sea Hawk as well as a splendid contribution to Newman’s The Robe (1952).
The John Alldis Choir, a professional ensemble of sixteen singers specializing in contemporary music, provide superlative vocal lines for Tiomkin’s amazing original score for Lost Horizon (1937), presented here in a generous 23-minute suite.
All in all, the Gerhardt albums are well programmed throughout, with an ideal mix between the best-loved classics and some intriguing rarities. Fortunately the track listings are kept intact, without any re-release meddling with George Korngold’s original album designs.
Some remastering would have been in place, however. Here and there, the ear picks distortions within the old CD masters, the most notable examples being the opening bars of Korngold’s The Private of Elizabeth and Essex Overture (1939) and a couple of passages in Steiner’s Symphonie Moderne.
Apart from these occasional, deplorable effects of time, the sound quality is quite enjoyable. Given the outstanding quality of these performances, updated sonics might serve them even further. And, to be frank, these benchmark recordings would deserve proper liner notes, or at least liner notes of some kind.
While the perfect re-release of this series is yet to materialize, let us enjoy all the ingenious music contained in this box set. Even today, they provide the best introduction conceivable for the gorgeous variety of sounds of the Hollywood golden age.
Charles Gerhardt conducts Classic Film Scores
National Philharmonic Orchestra
Charles Gerhardt, conductor
Band of the Grenadier Guards
The Ambrosian Singers
The John Alldis Choir
Kiri Te Kanawa, soprano
Norma Procter, contralto
Joaquín Achúcarro, piano
Earl Wild, piano
Sidney Sax, violin
Francisco Garbarro, cello
Sony Classical 19075920642 (2020), 12 CDs
© Jari Kallio