Bernard Herrmann / Citizen Kane & Other Classic Film Scores – Our Shootout Winner from 2013

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Orchestral Music Hall of Fame.

The Citizen Kane Suite on this album is to die for — a real desert island disc for me. (The CD by the way is actually quite good. I have it in the car and play it often.) 

The Concerto Macabre for Piano and Orchestra (from “Hangover Square”) is superbly well recorded and a brilliant piece of music as well.

An orchestral dreadnought such as this requires mastering and pressing of the highest quality. The music by its very nature taxes the limits of LP playback itself, with deep bass notes; incredible dynamics from every area of the stage; masses of strings playing at the top of their registers with abandon; huge drums; powerful brass effects — every sound an orchestra can produce is found on this record, and then some.

You will hear plenty of sounds that defy description, that’s for sure. Some of the time I can hardly imagine what instrument or group of instruments could possibly be making some of these sounds.

Click on the picture below to see the variety of instrumentation and the huge recording effort that went into the making of Citizen Kane. Nine harps. The serpent. Tuba using a mute.

All the colors of the orchestra and some new ones too. Bernard Herrmann was a genius!

Booklet

The four page illustrated booklet included with the album is wonderfully informative. The print is quite small, so there’s plenty to chew on for those who love the music of Bernard Herrmann, the man who single-handedly changed the course of soundtrack music forever.

What Are You Selling?

Record dealers that sell records based on their reputation — and that means pretty much all of them — are selling the hype. If they haven’t played the record, they can’t tell you what it sounds like, TAS List or no TAS List. The catalog number may be right, but finding the sound that lives up to the description can only be done one way: by playing the record.


This is Bernard Herrmann’s Masterpiece as well as a Desert Island Disc for yours truly.

What qualifies a record to be a Masterpiece needs no explanation. We will make every effort to limit the list to one entry per artist or group, although some exceptions have already occurred to me, so that rule will no doubt be broken from time to time. As Ralph Waldo Emerson so memorably wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…”

For a record to come to my Desert Island Disc, said record: 1) must have at some time during my fifty years as a music lover and audio enthusiast been played enthusiastically, fanatically even, causing me to feel what Leonard Bernstein called “the joy of music”; 2) my sixty year old self must currently respect the album, and; 3) I must think I will want to listen to the music fairly often and well into the future (not knowing how long I may be stranded there).

How many records meet the Desert Island Disc criteria? Certainly many more than you can see when you click on the link, but new titles will be added as time permits.

TRACK LISTING

Side One

The Death Hunt (from “On Dangerous Ground”)

Prelude: Xanadu;
Snow Pictures;
Theme & Variations (Breakfast Montage);
Aria from Salammbô (Kiri Te Kanawa, soprano);
Rosebud & Finale (from “Citizen Kane”)

The Sea;
The Lagoon;
Descending;
The Undersea Forest;
The Octopus;
Homecoming (from “Beneath the 12 Mile Reef”)

Side Two

Concerto Macabre for Piano and Orchestra (from “Hangover Square”)

Talking Drums;
Prelude: The Riverboat;
Petticoat Dance;
The Safari;
Tarantula;
The Lion;
Nocturne;
Abduction of the Bakuba Boy;
The Skulls;
Lonni Bound By Ropes;
Departure (from “White Witch Doctor”)

Five Star CD Reissue Review

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.

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.

Wilkie and the Decca Tree

Decca was an early adopter of the LP album, which put it ahead of its direct competitor EMI. The company was also an early exponent of stereophonic recording. Wilkinson would make the move to stereo recordings for Decca in April 1958, but until then he remained the engineer with the monaural recording team (for a time there were parallel recording teams) because mono was considered the more important release. In the early 1950s, together with Roy Wallace (1927–2007) and Haddy, he developed the Decca tree spaced microphone array used for stereo orchestral recordings. Decca began to use this for recordings in May 1954 [the month and year I was born!] at Victoria Hall in Geneva, a venue Wilkinson did not record in. He preferred recording in London and Paris although he also recorded in Amsterdam, Bayreuth, Chicago, Copenhagen, Rome, and Vienna.

Wilkinson discussed the use of the Decca tree in an interview with Michael H. Gray in 1987.

You set up the Tree just slightly in front of the orchestra. The two outriggers, again, one in front of the first violins, that’s facing the whole orchestra, and one over the cellos. We used to have two mikes on the woodwind section – they were directional mikes, 56’s in the early days. You’d see a mike on the tympani, just to give it that little bit of clarity, and one behind the horns. If we had a harp, we’d have a mike trained on the harp. Basically, we never used too many microphones. I think they’re using too many these days.

Wilkinson’s method of selecting recording venues was recounted in an article on concert hall orchestral sound written by the conductor Denis Vaughan in 1981:

I have recorded in many halls throughout Europe and America and have found that halls built mainly of brick, wood and soft plaster, which are usually older halls, always produce a good natural warm sound. Halls built with concrete and hard plaster seem to produce a thin hard sound and always a lack of warmth and bass. Consequently when looking for halls to record in I always avoid modern concrete structures.

Wilkinson went on to engineer at hundreds of recording sessions. He was said to have worked with more than 150 conductors. He was the engineer most responsible for Richard Itter’s Lyrita recordings (which Decca produced). Itter always requested Wilkinson as engineer, calling him “a wizard with mikes.”

Wilkinson’s stereo recordings with the conductor Charles Gerhardt (including a series of Reader’s Digest recordings and the RCA Classic Film Scores series) and the producer John Culshaw made his name and reputation known to record reviewers and audiophiles. His legacy was extended by the fact that he trained every Decca engineer from 1937 onwards.

Wilkinson, always called “Wilkie” in the music business, was known as a straight-talking man, interested only in the quality of the work. The Decca producer Ray Minshull (1934–2007) recalled Wilkinson’s methods in an interview with Jonathan Valin in March 1993:

Everyone loved and respected Wilkie, but during a session he could be exacting when it came to small details. He would prowl the recording stage with a cigarette – half-ash – between his lips, making minute adjustments in the mike set-up and in the orchestral seating. Seating arrangement was really one of the keys to Wilkie’s approach and he would spend a great deal of time making sure that everyone was located just where he wanted them to be, in order for the mikes to reflect the proper balances.

Of course, most musicians had a natural tendency to bend toward the conductor as they played. If such movement became excessive, Wilkie would shoot out onto the stage and chew the erring musician out before reseating him properly. He wanted the musicians to stay exactly where he had put them. He was the steadiest of engineers, the most painstaking and the most imaginative. In all of his sessions, he never did the same thing twice, making small adjustments in mike placement and balances to accord with his sense of the sonic requirements of the piece being played.

His recordings were characterised by the producer Tam Henderson in an appreciation: “The most remarkable sonic aspect of a Wilkinson orchestral recording is its rich balance, which gives full measure to the bottom octaves, and a palpable sense of the superior acoustics of the venues he favored, among them London’s Walthamstow Assembly Hall and The Kingsway Hall of revered memory”.

On retiring, Wilkinson received a special gold disc produced by Decca with extracts of his recordings. He received three Grammys for engineering: 1973, 1975, and 1978. He also received an audio award from Hi-Fi magazine in 1981 and the Walter Legge Award in 2003 “…for extraordinary contribution to the field of recording classical music.”

More of Kenneth Wilkinson