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CLASSICAL  March 2010

CLASSICAL March 2010

Subject:

Korngold on the High Seas and in the Concert Hall

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 12 Mar 2010 17:34:11 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Parts/Attachments

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[Read online at: http://www.classical.net/music/recs/reviews/n/nxs70110a.php ]

Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Complete Film Scores

*  The Sea Hawk
*  Deception

Irina Ronishevskaya, soprano
Alexander Zagorinsky, cello
Moscow Symphony Orchestra & Chorus/William Stromberg
Naxos 8.570110-11 Total Time: 144:50 (2 CDs)

Summary for the Busy Executive: A landmark film score and a fascinating
what-if.

My interest in collecting film music (other than "classical" works like
those of Prokofiev and Copland) began in the 1970s with RCA's series of
LPs by Charles Gerhardt and the National Philharmonic Orchestra, magnificent
in repertoire, interpretation, and sound engineering. I bought almost
every one of those LPs (except for those featuring Max Steiner, whom to
this day I can't abide). Gerhardt whetted my appetite.

The series also introduced me to Korngold's music, of which I had heard
only Heifetz's classic recording of the violin concerto. A violinist
friend remarked that it was "pure corn and pure gold." Nevertheless, it
ravished me, like a rich dessert. I've since heard a lot of Korngold,
including the majority of his operas. Yet the movie music has always
held a special place in my listening life, thanks mainly to Gerhardt.

Still, like most albums of movie music, Gerhardt's Korngold consisted
of a few cues from any particular film. The cues were wisely chosen
(perhaps by the producer, the composer's son George Korngold), but I
always longed for a complete score, or at least a soundtrack album. In
the meantime, almost the only way to hear the work was to catch somehow
the films, and even then, dialogue levels could easily cover the music
to the point of inaudibility.  Fortunately, with the advent of the CD,
more and more film scores have made it to transfer. We have here,
apparently for the first time, the "complete" Sea Hawk and Deception.
I use the quotes only because the raw cues, in most cases, make for an
unsatisfying listening experience, due to their frequent brevity. So
arrangers and editors come into the project. John Morgan, a West Coast
composer and arranger with a deep knowledge of the history of film
scoring, has ministered to Korngold's cue charts with taste and skill.

The Sea Hawk was perhaps the most elaborate and complex of Korngold's
movie work. Not only did he write enough sheer stuff for maybe two movies,
but the instrumental writing (according to Warner's principal cellist,
Eleanor Aller Slatkin) was as intricate as Strauss's Don Juan. Furthermore,
Korngold finished composition and recording in a couple of weeks (he had
help with orchestration, and fortunately the studio provided copyists,
overworked and badly-paid). Some writers claim that Korngold brought the
techniques of European concert music to Hollywood films - not strictly
true. Dimitri Tiomkin and Franz Waxman in particular had done this before,
as had Max Steiner and Robert Russell Bennett in their simpler ways.
However, Korngold raised the bar. The full score makes plain the power
of Korngold's music in a way that snippets, no matter how individually
beautiful, do not. What you get is a score conceived as a whole, like a
post-Wagnerian opera, with genuine Leitmotiven and everything. Furthermore,
Korngold got the opportunity from director Michael Curtiz to create long
musical set-pieces that complemented Curtiz's action set-pieces. What's
more, Korngold has constructed a scheme of modulation from one cue to
another, as one would do in a symphony or a post-Wagnerian opera, so
that you experience even longer spans across several cues. This score,
as it swashes and buckles its way through the film, serves as a lesson
in film composing, and Korngold's smarter Hollywood contemporaries learned
from it.

An altogether different affair and the last movie Korngold scored for
Warners, Deception represents a new direction in Korngold's music, less
gorgeously sweet and illustrating darker psychological corners without
recourse to supernatural fantasy or faux-medieval legend. It concerns
the murder of a composer (Claude Raines) by his mistress (Bette Davis),
married to the cellist (Paul Henreid) who premieres the composer's new
concerto.  It's as close to film noir as Korngold came, and he felt free
to indulge his "modern" tendencies. Most of the cues run very short
indeed. Korngold wanted to use well-known classical pieces whenever
possible. However, he also composed a piece for the "premiere" for cello
and orchestra, which became his own cello concerto. The movie cue is
shorter than the final concerto, but only by a couple of minutes, and
the final draft strikes more deeply than the cue. Nevertheless, a movie
today about (especially!) contemporary classical musicians with this
size of budget today runs pretty rare today.  The Thirties and Forties
audiences seemed more interested in the topic. One thinks of Hangover
Square, the Claude Raines Phantom of the Opera, even Citizen Kane for
starters, all made within a brief span from each other.

The performances are good enough, like the sound quality. However, the
Russian singers wrestling with the English lyrics of The Sea Hawk's vocal
set pieces are unintentionally hilarious. Fortunately, the notes provide
the text, which turns out to be not that important anyway. The notes,
by Korngold maven Brendan G. Carroll (also president of the Korngold
Society and the author of the best-received bio of the composer), superbly
lay bare the bones and grammar of The Sea Hawk. However, they fall into
the trap of telling you more than you wanted to know, particularly about
the production of the films. It leads to practically no analysis of
Deception. Furthermore, I keep comparing Stromberg's fine reading with
Gerhardt's great one, and the RCA sound is sumptuous. I particularly
admire Gerhardt's interpretation of the Cello Concerto (I believe he
uses the concerto rather than the cue). I would say that the Stromberg
recording shows you the sweep of the scores and of course includes more
music, but the Gerhardt has not yet become obsolete.

Steve Schwartz

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