Saturday, June 25, 2011

Charles Gerhardt Returns

I finally got around to listening to one of the remastered/reissued titles in Sony/BMG's reissues of Charles Gerhardt's Classic Film Score series. The decision to re-release these recordings was long overdue, but the reissues didn't do them the kind of justice I was hoping for. When most of them were prepared for CD release, they were remastered in fake Dolby Surround, which didn't always do justice to the orignal sound. According to this review, the new remasterings have kept the Dolby Surround encoding.

Before Gerhardt died he was working on a set of CD reissues which would have expanded the original albums. RCA released an expanded Franz Waxman CD and a Korngold CD where the suites from The Sea Hawk and Of Human Bondage were fleshed out with excerpts used on other Gerhardt albums. But after that, RCA reverted to the original LP contents, remastered in Dolby. The new reissues also use the original LP contents, so you have to buy two albums to get all the Sea Hawk music Gerhardt recorded. The expanded Korngold and Waxman CDs are out of print (I have the Korngold) but if you happen upon used copies, get them. To my ears they preserve more of the original sound than the Dolby versions, listenable though those are. (The engineer for these recordings was Kenneth Wilkinson, the top engineer for the Decca Record company, and they recorded them in Kingsway Hall, England's best location for classical recording -- the place whose acoustics were so good that EMI engineers preferred to record there than in their own Abbey Road studios.)

The Classic Film Scores series was one of the many projects that fueled the movie nostalgia boom of the early '70s. Some of the composers whose music Gerhardt recorded, like Korngold, were dead. (The project started with Korngold, whose music was starting to be rediscovered: Gerhardt, an RCA producer, teamed up with Korngold's record-producer son George, who produced most of the series.) In fact, many of the most prolific older composers died around the same time: Franz Waxman in 1967, Alfred Newman in 1970, Max Steiner in 1971. But others were alive and were having trouble getting work, like Miklós Rózsa and Bernard Herrmann. Somewhat like today, a preference for less bombastic music on the soundtrack and the newfound popularity of pop music in movies (using actual pop recordings was almost unheard-of until Blackboard Jungle, and wasn't common for a decade after) had pushed that kind of symphonic, operatic movie score to the side.

This backlash was understandable -- I guess backlashes often are. Hollywood music in the '30s through the '50s was famous for having too much of a homogenous style -- the basic string-heavy, loud, Wagner/Strauss late-romantic style was all over the place, whether from composers who were great practicioners of that style (like Korngold) or solid musicians who could write a good tune (like Max Steiner). There were other composers with a less Germanic style: Rózsa's style has obvious Hungarian elements while Herrmann and Raksin wrote in what was considered the mainstream American symphonic style of the time - a little edgier and less Romantic than the Korngold style. But even if the styles differed, they were writing on similar principles: a big, loud theme for the opening titles, lots of music throughout the film (except comedies). Even Herrmann, one of the most "modern"-sounding of these composers and the least reliant on big tunes, turned out a score for Vertigo that is openly indebted to Wagner's Tristan; there was a sense that Hollywood music was stuck in the late 19th/early 20th century, and it was inevitable that younger directors and producers would demand a different kind of music (or no music at all).

The success of Gerhardt's Korngold album, and subsequent releases in the series, fit in with an ongoing rediscovery of and nostalgia for the old type of Hollywood music. It was around this time that Herrmann started getting work in Hollywood again, from younger filmmakers who admired his work with Hitchcock (by the time Gerhardt did his Herrmann album, Herrmann had already made his big 1973 comeback working for Brian DePalma), and in the late '70s, Rózsa became in-demand again for filmmakers wanting an Old Hollywood sound. Even before Star Wars revived the Korngold style, there was a new awareness of and interest in the musical value of old film scores, and Gerhardt's series contributed to that.

Part of the idea behind some of these recordings was an idea that has been kicked around for a long time: that movie scores are worth performing as stand-alone concert pieces, and more philosophically, that the great concert music was being written not for concerts but for films. This hasn't really caught on all that much, even now: though there are still attempts to perform Waxman or Korngold or Rota's film music separately, these composers still get more performances for actual concert pieces that they created for that purpose. (Korngold is an obvious example: his Violin concerto, completely created from themes he wrote for Warner Brothers movies, is extremely popular, and it's more common to hear that on a program than a suite from his films.) Prokofiev is one of the few film composers whose work really makes a lot of formal sense divorced from the images - and even Prokofiev rearranged his scores into suites so they could be done in concert. When you take Korngold's Of Human Bondage, one of his best scores for a not-so-good movie, and listen to it as stand-alone music, you're aware of the beauty of the themes, but also that it can sound a bit repetitious -- something that isn't a problem when it's combined with images and words.

As part of the attempt to place these scores in the American musical canon, Gerhardt and the National Philharmonic (a nonexistent orchestra, which he helped create for recording purposes and which played on many classical and film recordings of the '70s) made them sound bigger and lusher than they ever did on the soundtracks -- not just because he was working with big broad stereo sound instead of scratchy mono, but because he deliberately gave them more expansive readings. The original recordings had to be fairly lean in texture, so they could be combined with dialogue and sound effects, and the tempos were often very fast, to fit the pace of the movie. Here's Herrmann's own recording of the theme for White Witch Doctor, another not-great movie with a great score. It's incredibly, almost incoherently fast, but he had to play it that way to fit the credits.

On Gerhardt's recording, the tempo is slower and the prelude sounds more like, well, music. He felt no need to do the music exactly as it had been done in the films; the point was to make the best possible case for them as "pure" music.

I don't know if you have favourite entries in the Gerhardt series. My own favourite, the one I bought (in CD form, mostly because I like the liner notes) is the Herrmann disc. By the time it was recorded, Herrmann had been rediscovered by Hollywood, so there was not as much need to make the case for him as a composer. But Hollywood mostly knew him from his work with Hitchcock, and it was as a suspense composer that he was mostly hired after he split with Hitchcock. After Hitchcock, Herrmann was probably best known for his fantasy scores for Harryhausen pictures, because Herrmann himself had done some recordings of that music. So Gerhardt and George Korngold devoted a whole disc to Herrmann's earlier music, from the '40s and '50s, when he was freelancing for RKO and Fox -- Citizen Kane, of course, but also White Witch Doctor, Beneath the Twelve Mile Reef and On Dangerous Ground.

The disc not only showed off Herrmann's range but his ability to do work in classic forms: the theme-and-variations at the breakfast table in Citizen Kane, the aria Susan Alexander sings (here given a performance by a young Kiri Te Kanawa) and the piano concerto in Hangover Square, which is the climax of the whole work. (Stephen Sondheim has cited Hangover Square and Herrmann's score as a big inspiration for Sweeney Todd.) A very well-chosen program that helped to show off a side of Herrmann that everyone, including him, had kind of forgotten about.

On the flip side, I always thought the inflated, symphonic style of these recordings didn't do great favors to composers like Max Steiner and Alfred Newman -- the ones who were first-rate musicians but not necessarily first-rate composers. Steiner at least has one thing that carries him through every single recording of his work: he was a very talented melodist, and the Now, Voyager, Big Sleep and Gone With the Wind tunes sound great in stereo. But I remember the Newman album being a bit of a chore to get through, because he always knew the right musical gesture to make for a particular moment (big wordless choruses for religious stories; bustling music for a bustling airport) but seemed to be working in terms of gestures rather than having any style of his own -- particularly compared to Herrmann and Raksin, two composers who often worked for him at Fox. (To be fair, though, Herrmann and Newman worked together on the score for The Egyptian and I can't remember offhand who did what; and there are some Herrmann scores at Fox that I might mistake for Newman scores.)

The question of style and personality seems to be the biggest one when it comes to whether a film composer's music "holds up" outside of the movie. Just as a writer doesn't (and often shouldn't) get to show much individual personality in writing a film, a composer's personality often has to be subordinate to the needs of the director. Having too strong an individual personality can make a composer hard to pair with a strong director. Korngold, who certainly had a style all his own, never found one of those great composer/director partnerships like Prokofiev/Eistenstein, Morricone/Leone, Rota/Fellini or Herrmann/Hitchcock. At Warners he mostly didn't work with strong directors, and after 1943 he didn't work on many strong films, either. Other composers with less personality could adapt more easily to different approaches. One of the things that makes Herrmann so exceptional is that he had his own unmistakable style, but one that was adaptable enough to fit the demands of directors as powerful as Welles and Hitchcock and Scorsese.