Bernard Herrmann & Orson Welles

CD Review: The Film Music of Bernard Herrmann

Chandos continues their excellent line of re-recordings with THE FILM MUSIC OF BERNARD HERRMANN. The generous 77-minute album contains two long suites from Herrmann’s groundbreaking score for CITIZEN KANE (1941) and HANGOVER SQUARE (1945). Many fans complained on the message boards about the inclusion of yet another KANE suite. To a certain extent I see their point, but the dark tone of the two scores go well together. And when the music is of this caliber, it’s hard to dispute any conductor wanting to tackle Herrmann, no matter the score.

The big draw for many fans will be the HANGOVER SQUARE suite, which, as far as I can tell, is receiving its premiere legit release. The film noir stars Linda Darnell, George Sanders, and Laird Cregar as a composer-pianist who suffers from bouts of amnesia and is suspected of murder. The piano obviously plays a big role in the story and an equally big part in the score. From the soaring strings of “Fame” to the brutal music of “Murder” and “The Bonfire,” the score contains Herrmann’s trademark harmonies and short rhythmic motifs.

The Film Music of Bernard Herrmann
“Netta/The Spell/Murder/Fame” from HANGOVER SQUARE
“Salaambo’s Aria” from CITIZEN KANE

The suite concludes with a rare recording of the 11-minute Concerto Macabre for piano and orchestra. Due to the success of Richard Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto, written for the film DANGEROUS MOONLIGHT, producers were quick to add short concertos to their films. Though the practice started in Britain, it crossed the pond to Hollywood films such as SPELLBOUND and HANGOVER SQUARE. The piece was based on themes and motifs from the score and accompanies the final scene of the film as Cregar’s pianist plays the concerto as flames engulf him. While the concerto has been recorded before, Martin Roscoe elicits every bit of drama from the piece with his excellent playing.

The generous 49-minute KANE suite encompasses nearly all the music that can be found in full recordings of the score. From its eerie opening chords to its dramatic finale, the score is one of the all-time greats in film music. For all of Herrmann’s later experiments, few scores equal the quality of KANE, which remains a bold, fresh score in many ways.

All the major cues are there. From the delicate beauty of the snow picture and the boisterous music that underscores the newspaper scenes to the theme and variations accompanying the montage and dissolution of Kane’s marriage.

For me, the success of any KANE recording rests with “Salammbo’s Aria.” This fiendishly difficult soprano aria is sung in the film by Kane’s former mistress and new wife. It was composed in a higher key so that the music would sound above and beyond what she could handle. And the aria challenges even some of the top tier sopranos of our day, including Renee Fleming and Kiri Te Kanawa. Orla Boylan is missing the creamy vocal quality that I prefer, but I’ll forgive that when the orchestral playing is this good. The timpani and lower strings supply weight to this interpretation of the aria that I haven’t heard in other versions and the French horn rips at the end (my favorite part) send shivers up my spine. The aria ends too deliberately for my tastes but it’s a worthy recording of a piece that should be a staple of the soprano repertoire, at least for those few singers that have the chops for it.

Stephen Hogger has done an excellent job arranging the two scores from the original manuscripts. Since so many of the cues are short, especially in KANE, they are grouped in lengthier tracks. This might be frustrating if you’re looking for a particular cue, but it gives the album a fluidity that it might have otherwise lacked. Gunther Kogenbehn’s liner notes are informative but don’t offer much in the way of new information and little in-depth discussion of the music.

Rumon Gamba and the BBC Philharmonic perform with their usual energy and impeccable attention to detail. While I could quibble with some of the rubato and slower tempo choices, Gamba’s handling of the music is up to his usual level of excellence. Once again, the Chandos engineers have given us a vibrant recording that brings out new details in Herrmann’s music, with particular attention to the lower registers that gives the music a welcome depth. Listen to the CD with headphones for an even greater level of appreciation.

If you’ve never heard either of these scores, THE FILM MUSIC OF BERNARD HERRMANN is a good place to start. Even if you have heard them, you’ll more than likely unearth new musical gems. A worthy addition to the Herrmann catalog.

  1. Wonderful review! I shall be purchasing this very soon :)

    The only Bernard Herrmann CD I have is “The Essential Film Music Collection 2-CD set released by Silva Screen Records which only contains the overture to Citizen Kane.

    So I look forward to hearing and owning this 49-minute suite.

    My favourite film and score from the 40s was The Ghost And Mrs. Muir, is the score to that film available to buy do you know?
    .-= Wendell´s last blog ..Imperium =-.

    1. It’s a wonderful recording and I think you’ll enjoy the rest of the score. But be prepared to give it time to gel.

      You bet GHOST AND MRS. MUIR is available. The original soundtrack is on Varese: Elmer Bernstein recorded a good portion of the score in the 70s as part of his Film Music Collection, which is available in the box set at Film Score Monthly:
      That version is pricey, but it’s a wonderful set of scores by numerous Golden Age composers.

      1. Oh awesome! Thanks a lot Jim. That box set is very appealing :)
        .-= Wendell´s last blog ..Imperium =-.

  2. The selection that you included from Citizen Kane, and your commentary, are, as per usual, entertaining and informative. But my reaction to the vocal surprised me. I don’t think I’d ever heard that aria outside of its original incantation, so I clicked on the track, eager to hear it performed “for real.” And then I found myself missing the sad, thin voice of Susan Alexander outmatched by the powerful music.

    It made me realize a couple of things, and prompted a question to which you might know the answer. It made me aware that I’ve always assumed Dorothy Commingore did her own singing in the film – her “opening night” vocal so closely matches what we’ve heard in earlier scenes with her frustrated coach. And it made me appreciate yet another element that Herrmann and Welles got pitch-perfect: what could have been a burlesque was instead touching because of the passion and effort in a voice that just wasn’t ever gonna be ready for prime time.

    If it was a ghost-singer, I think Andy Williams can be ruled out on this one, and Marie Osmond hadn’t been born yet. Have you ever come across anything on it? If the answer’s available, you probably have it. If not, and it’s a tough factoid to track down, it’s not like you aren’t busy enough already maintaining what’s got to be the best website on film scoring, and among the best on any subject.

    Then again it could be just a google away, so maybe I’ll get the answer one way or the other.

    Meanwhile, best regards

    1. Hi Dave, according to IMDB the singer was Jean Forward of the San Francisco Opera, though she was uncredited (as were many people in the film). Since I don’t trust IMDB, I’ve asked the folks over at the Bernard Herrmann Society message board just to make sure. If the info changes I’ll let you know.

      And thanks for your kind words about the blog. I appreciate it. :)

  3. Hi again, Jim. Didn’t expect that curiosity satisfied so quickly, I guess because the studios were kind of hush hush on the subject, but maybe that was mostly when their big stars were involved. Before getting back to see if you had any further info, I got off my virtual duff and also found a mention of Jean Forward on, annotated and attributed to David Raksin in a reminiscence about his colleagues. There was even something about Nat King Cole having played piano for the ambient source music in the Jersey club scenes (not, I think, attributed to the late, great D.R.)

    The fact that the question finally occurred to me at all (thanks to your review) underscores how well the dubbing was done – more convincingly than a lot of what has followed even with technological advances.

    Again thanks:)

    1. Steven C. Smith’s Herrmann bio, A Heart At Fire’s Center (which I reviewed on this site and highly recommend…you can link to it through the Related Posts in the sidebar above), also confirms Jean Forward.

      1. I can also confirm that Jean Forward dubbed the aria for the film. She’s my grandma.

  4. Yeah, it’s really cool given my love for film and music. She got the job pretty much straight out of high school. I’ll post a recording of an interview she did for a radio show a while back when I get home tonight.

      1. Yeah, they were looking for a budding soprano whose talents would be strained by the virtuosity of the aria. Regardless, they asked her to make it dirty. Welles had her redo it several times to make it appropriately messy.

        I have this on a CD my aunt put together of misc. excerpts from my grandparents’ singing careers. Hope you find it interesting!

        Lou Rugani radio show for WLIP 10/31/2004

        Pt.2 (interview with Jean Forward):
        Between 3-4 he runs Kiri Te Kanawa’s recording of Salammbo
        .-= Stephen Laughlin´s last blog ..Clayes Collage Concert at CSUF =-.

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