Album review: The art of Bernard Herrmann revisited

In the late sixties and early seventies, along the long and winding road into making film music presentable for the classically-oriented audiences, the Decca Phase 4 Stereo recordings by Bernard Herrmann played a crucial role, alongside RCA’s Classic Film Scores series, conducted by Charles Gerhardt. Following the budget-box re-release of the latter collection last year, Decca has set forth to reissue the Herrmann albums as a generously-priced box of seven original-jacketed CDs.

Recorded over seven years with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the National Philharmonic Orchestra, the original albums included suites from Herrmann’s own film scores, most notably those written for Alfred Hitchcock, Ray Harryhausen and Orson Welles, featured on four LPs, as well as excerpts from the film oeuvres of Miklós Rózsa, Dmitri Shostakovich, William Walton and Ralph Vaughan Williams, among others. Cut short by Herrmann’s passing on the early hours of the Christmas Day of 1975, the series concluded with the composer’s original soundtrack recording for Brian de Palma’sObsession, released posthumously in 1976.

Although reissued in several guises over the decades, including Decca’s own CD pressings and the coveted 1989 Masters Film Music box set, these albums have been out of print for ages, some of them appearing only in second hand auctions at ridiculous prices. It should also be noted that the CD firsts by Decca substituted the original LP tracklists with re-groupings, which perhaps served playing time, but disrupted the original dramatic arches. The new set retains original programming for each of the seven albums, thus preserving the programming as intended and serving the music well on each occasion.

Now, some fifty years after their initial releases, the scene has changed somewhat indeed, and there is far wider repertoire of film music available, both in their original soundtrack presentations as well as various re-recordings. In the case of Herrmann, most of the repertoire contained in the four albums of concert suites have since appeared in more extended form, including Herrmann’s own original soundtrack recordings. Thus, the pioneering Phase 4 albums now land into far wider and more varied market than back in the days of their album firsts. Still, for the most part, they still stand out with their exquisite orchestral playing, spacious studio ambience and the vivid dramaturgy provided by Herrmann’s insightful conducting.

Based on the accounts of several London players, Herrmann’s rehearsals were often quite straightforward read-throughs, followed by taping sessions. With top-class studio players of the National Philharmonic Orchestra, a studio ensemble formed of the finest musicians from London’s professional orchestras, the sonic outcome was often quite astonishing, as can be heard on the five of the seven albums. In the case of the London Philharmonic, performing on the first two releases, the results were perhaps more uneven, resulting in occasional lack of excitement is some of Herrmann’s quintessential scores.

All things considered, the two albums that still stand out as the finest presentations of Herrmann’s concert suites are, without question, The Fantasy Film World of Bernard Herrmann and The Mysterious Film World of Bernard Herrmann, both originally released in 1975. Performed with tremendous intensity and utmost clarity by the National Philharmonic, the two discs contain suites from seven film scores, including the four Harryhausen films, as well as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) and Fahrenheit 451 (1966).

These seven scores contain some of the most flamboyant orchestral line-ups Herrmann ever used, from expanded brass and percussion sections to various electronic instruments. In some cases, most notably Journey to the Center of the Earth and Mysterious Island (1961), Herrmann’s music endorses Edgar Varèse’s definition of organized sound, with musical dramaturgy created by juxtaposing sequences of repeated blocks into larger units. In The Day the Earth Stood Still, Herrmann re-invents the orchestra by scoring his music for two theremins and two brass choirs, with, electric organs, amplified solo strings and metallic percussion, giving rise to sonic realms akin to some of Olivier Messiaen’s most experimental ensembles.

In contrast, Herrmann’s score for The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958) is awash with late-romantic flourish and exotism. Is similar vein, Jason and the Argonauts (1963) is given an epic orchestral treatment, with Herrmann beating Rózsa in his own game. However, size does not always matter, as demonstrated by the spellbinding score for Fahrenheit 451 and its sublime combination strings, harps and percussion, yielding to one of Herrmann’s absolute masterpieces.

Perhaps the most striking these musical statements comes in the guise of The Three Worlds of Gulliver (1960), where Herrmann pays homage to the eighteenth century with a neoclassical masterstroke worthy of Igor Stravinsky’s Pulcinella (1919-20). One of Herrmann’s own favourites, the extended suite serves the original score beautifully, endorsed by the spirited performance form the National Philharmonic Orchestra.

Released wit the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1970, Music from Great Film Classics brings together music from the early years of Herrmann’s film career. The composer’s own suite from Citizen Kane (1941) focuses on the Americana aspects of the score, providing a marvellous concert presentation, quite different from the one by Charles Gerhardt and the NPO on their 1974 all-Herrmann album. The two Faustian dance cues from The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) feast with obsessive sonorities and rhythms, aptly balanced by the two lyrical pieces from The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952).

The most substantial piece on the album is the thirteen-minute tableau from Jane Eyre (1943). A mist-shrouded score akin to Herrmann four-act opera Wuthering Heights (1943-51), the music comes off as a harrowing elegy with Herrmann and the LPO.

Fifty two years after its first pressings hit the market, the pioneering Hitchcock album, titled The Great Movie Thrillers (1969) does not come off quite as thrilling as one would expect. Compared to the gripping intensity of the original soundtrack recording, Herrmann’s concert adaptation of Psycho (1960) sounds a bit too well-mannered, lacking both tension and contrast. However, the three-movement suite from Vertigo (1958) fares much better, as Herrmann and the LPO deliver a gorgeously dark-hued performance, the composer’s only recorded take of the score.

In addition to the three short excerpts from North by Northwest (1959) and Marnie (1964), the album features A Portrait of ’Hitch’, Herrmann’s thorough reworking of the music from The Trouble with Harry (1955) for concert presentation. A black comedy in autumnal colours, the score is one of Herrmann’s most evocative works, bearing family relationship with Stravinsky and Maurice Ravel, while remaining true to Herrmann’s unique musical language. While the eight-minute concert piece does its best to convey the full brilliance of the forty-five minute original score, it obviously has its limits, unlike the 1998 complete re-recording by Joel McNeely and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

Herrmann’s penultimate film score, Obsession (1975), is provided in its entirety on the forty-minute original soundtrack release. A riveting orchestral score with voices and electric organs added, the music is a manifestation of Herrmann’s inextinguishable imagination, passing the trademark Hitchcock sound over to the new generation of directors. Brooding and intense, yet marvellously layered, Obsession demonstrates the distilled quality of Herrmann’s late style with admirable sonic splendor and spellbinding magic.

The two albums with Herrmann championing the film scores of his colleagues, both recorded with the NPO, constitute a rousing tribute to the genre. The first disc, Music from Great Shakespearean Films (1975), provides us with inspired takes on Shostakovich’s Suite from Hamlet, Op. 32a (1932), Walton’s Richard III Prelude (1955) as well as Rózsa´s Suite from Julius Caesar (1953). Solemn and dark-hued, the three scores make a fine playlist, a case in point of thoughtful programming. In terms of performance, the three composers are made proud by the top-class playing from the members of the NPO. As for Herrmann, the conductor is clearly on his home ground with the Shakespearean realms of his fellow composers, resulting in a truly wonderful album.

The second disc, Bernard Herrmann conducts Great British Film Scores (1975), is a more diverse affair, featuring selections from no less than six composers. Suites from Constant Lambert’s Tolstoy classic Anna Karenina (1948) and Arthur Bliss’s science fiction dystopia Things to Come (1936) frame shorter excerpts from Vaughan Williams, Walton, Arthur Benjamin and Arnold Bax, constituting a multi-faceted foray into the art of British film scoring.

Although each of the scores featured on the Herrmann and NPO album have subsequently enjoyed more extended releases on the Chandos Film Music series, the classic Decca release still has its special charm, thanks to the outstanding orchestral performances and well-put-together playlist. While the vivid performances of the Lambert and Bliss suites form the gravitational centers for the album, there is much to cherish within the short pieces in between, be it those exquisite dance cues from Benjamin and Walton, the uplifting Oliver Twist (1948) pieces by Bax or Vaughan Williams’s masterful 49th Parallel (1941).

As a whole, the new Decca set is well conceived and realized, save from few typos and mistakes in the otherwise fine liner notes, including posthumous session dates given for Obsession. Sound-wise, all seven albums, each housed in a simple, yet elegant original-jacket slipcase, are well taken care of, celebrating the art of Bernard Herrmann well indeed.

National Philharmonic Orchestra

London Philharmonic Orchestra

Bernard Herrmann, conductor

Music from Great Movie Thrillers (1969)

Music from great Film Classics (1970)

The Fantasy Film World of Bernard Herrmann (1975)

Music from Great Shakespearean Films (1975)

The Mysterious Film World of Bernard Herrmann (1975)

Bernard Herrmann conducts Great British Film Music (1975)

Bernard Herrmann: Obsession (1975)

Recorded in 1968-1975

Decca 4851585 (2021), 7 CDs

© Jari Kallio

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