Citizen Kane

CD Review: Citizen Kane – The Classic Film Scores of Bernard Herrmann

The concluding batch of Sony reissues from Charles Gerhardt’s Classic Film Scores series has been released and the first CD is a gem. CITIZEN KANE – THE CLASSIC FILM SCORES OF BERNARD HERRMANN brings together selections from five of his most famous–and inventive–scores, without a single note of Hitchcock among them.

The album opens with the rousing “The Death Hunt” from ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1952). The film stars Robert Ryan as a bitter, burned out cop who falls in love with the blind sister (Ida Lupino) of the killer he is tracking. The piece is brutal in its ferocity as Ryan chases the killer through the rocky, snow-covered landscape. The stars of the cue are the nine (count ’em nine!) French horns as they gallop through furious triplets, growling trills and angry rips. For those of you who can’t abide the groove wear on FSM’s release of the original soundtrack, Gerhardt’s rendition will definitely get your blood pumping in all its remastered stereo glory.

Citizen Kane - The Classic Film Scores of Bernard Herrmann
“The Death Hunt” from ON DANGEROUS GROUND
“The Sea; The Lagoon” from BENEATH THE 12-MILE REEF

Suites from CITIZEN KANE have been recorded for decades, many with Herrmann himself conducting. But Gerhardt does the Maestro proud in four selections from the score. The somber opening chords lead into the sparkling “Snow Picture” as we travel back in time to Kane’s wintry childhood. As Orson Welles cleverly uses montage to show the dissolving of a marriage through the years over breakfast, Herrmann’s tender waltz theme goes through an equally clever set of musical variations during the successive scenes. The highlight of the suite is a young Kiri Te Kanawa singing the dramatic “Aria from Salaambô.” Herrmann deliberately wrote the aria to be difficult and hired lyric soprano Jean Forward from the San Francisco Opera to provide Susan Alexander’s (Dorothy Comingdore) struggles with the piece. The grueling four-minute aria ends on a punishing, yet thrilling, high D. Eileen Farrell and other sopranos had occasionally sung the aria in concert, but Te Kanawa was the first to record it. The suite, like the film, ends where it started–in those somber chords reflecting the disillusionment and decline of the once-mighty Charles Foster Kane.

What separates truly great film composers from their contemporaries is the ability to imbue scores for even lesser films with something rare and special. The 1953 underwater adventure BENEATH THE 12-MILE REEF stars Gilbert Roland and Robert Wagner as a father and son fishing for sponges off the coast of Florida. The film is not particularly “sponge-worthy,” but Herrmann’s score certainly is. Herrmann once again taps into the number nine, this time with nine harps bringing depth and color to the lush, romantic music. A mighty French horn theme opens the suite while the harps capture the heave and swell of the crashing waves. In cues like “Descending,” Herrmann assigned separate lines to each harp, bringing musical clarity to the murky mysteries of the ocean depths. The stereo and digital remastering bring out instrumental details that the original soundtrack can only hint at.

The 1945 film noir HANGOVER SQUARE stars Laird Cregar as a concert pianist whose life is poisoned by Linda Darnell’s music hall dancer. The highlight of the score is the one-movement “Concerto Macabre” for piano and orchestra. Spanish pianist Joaquín Achúcarro lends Romantic passion to Herrmann’s dark 12-minute piece.

In 1953, Robert Mitchum starred as the WHITE WITCH DOCTOR, a gold-seeking adventurer who brings medicine to the natives of the Congo with nurse Susan Hayward in tow. Herrmann used a variety of African drums to give the score authentic color. The furious allegro of the main theme (“The Riverboat”) is based on the five-note pentatonic scale. The marimba plays the theme to accompany the “Petticoat Dance.” Belching brass solos give voice to “The Lion” and the lovely “Nocturne” foreshadows Herrmann’s work with Hitchcock.

Herrmann, who was present at the recording sessions, personally selected the music for the album. There is a cohesiveness to the album that plays from the opening death hunt crashes to the fading sounds of the marimba and piccolo as we depart the dark continent. The performances are uniformly excellent and the album represents one of the peaks of the entire Classic Film Scores series.

While most of the program has since appeared on other compilations and in other formats, none can rival Gerhardt’s classic recording. This album is particularly welcome back in print as it contains the only recording so far of the music from WHITE WITCH DOCTOR. If the rest of this excellent recording doesn’t persuade you, that’s reason enough to add it to your collection.

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