Film Music

  • World Premiere Herrmann and Exploring Early Documentary Scores

     

    Herrmann: Whitman
    David Jones, clarinet. Netanel Draiblate, Eva Cappelletti Chao, violins.
    Philippe Chao, viola. Benjamin Capps, cello.
    PostClassical Ensemble/Angel Gil-Ordonez
    Naxos 8.559883
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

     

    Over nearly two decades, the Post-Classical Ensemble in Washington, D.C., has engaged audiences with its unique blend of global and folk music with dance, theater, and film for rather adventurous programming.  Under their founding conductor Angel Gil-Ordonez they have made several recordings of film music.  Most of these have been added into remasterings of the films and released on DVD.

    The ensemble’s first exploration of film music came with their recordings of two classic Virgil Thomson scores: The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936), and The River (1937) [Naxos 8.559291]  Thomson’s essential documentary scores are perfect examples of a distinct Americana style that was emerging in the 1930s.  The music’s more open, often hymn-like writing added to the lifting up of the stark imagery that accompanied director Pare Lorentz’s films.  These early documentary films broke new ground in their depictions of imagery music and language all pointed towards visual representations of FDR’s New Deal.  It is worth tracking down this earlier Naxos disc as there are some restored moments that have been missing from the very few recordings of the suites Thomson put together for the film.  Some music had also been cut, and this was restored as well.  Naxos also released both films along with three interesting featurettes and some audio of the composer discussing his music from 1979 that was conducted by film music reviewer Roger Hall.  [Naxos DVD 2.110521]

    A couple of years later, the ensemble returned to provide an updated recording for an historical release of Aaron Copland’s The City (1939).  This quintessential Copland score was created for the 1939 New York World’s Fair and has never been released in its entirety (though suites from the music have come and gone).  The DVD release (Naxos DVD 2.110231) provided a restored original soundtrack under Max Goberman’s direction.  The soundtrack was also then re-recorded and re-created by the Post-Classical Ensemble and that is also available as a brilliant-sounding option.  To date, oddly no CD of the performance has been released though.  This DVD release also includes a couple lengthier featurettes to add additional historical support and information.

    In 2014, the ensemble and Gil-Ordonez recorded a new performance for an important documentary film about the Mexican Revolution, Redes (1935).  The striking film features an exhilarating score by the great Silvestre Revueltas which gets an excellent performance here linked to the film.  Musically, it helps that very little dialogue is tracked in the musical sequences, so things can stay fairly clean sonically with this new release.  The Naxos DVD (2.110372) allows us to hear the original soundtrack as an option.  Again, no standalone CD for this score, though it would certainly be a must for those interested in global film music and this quite excellent 20th-Century composer.

    That brings us to the present CD release of music by Bernard Herrmann.  The album opens with music that he wrote for the radio drama Whitman.  This 1944 work uses a script by Norman Corwin and is based on Walt Whitman’s collection Leaves of Grass.  The piece as it is reconstructed here is for narrator (William Sharp in this recording) and small orchestra in this edition by Christopher Husted (2019).  The music has a more decided Americana feel with beautiful, folkish lines and even nods to traditional and familiar tune references (“Perpetual” is a moving adaptation of “America, the Beautiful” whose melodic gestures are part of the fabric).  The music provides the sort of brief swaths of Herrmann-esque dramatic gestures that are familiar from the composer’s film work (especially those delicate, emotional sighs).  It is a bit closer to his scoring for The Twilight Zone series (or even a few hints of Psycho itself when we head into “Battle”).  This is the closest though to a blend of Coland and Harris that Herrmann comes in his music, and that is quite fascinating to hear.  The piece is a perfect example of the blend of theater, poetry, and music that is a part of the ensemble’s programming.  This World Premiere Recording is certainly an exemplary performance.  Now, it would be interesting to hear the music sans narration as well, perhaps as a collection of CBS Workshop music someday.

    Herrmann’s brief clarinet quintet Souvenirs de voyage (1967) is a bit of a palette cleanser before we move into a performance of Psycho: A Narrative.  Herrmann recorded this work back in the 1960s, but a suite of music entered the concert film repertoire instead.  John Mauceri resurrected Herrmann’s original string piece in a new edition in 1999 and has recorded this a couple times and this is what is used here.  This is less a suite and more a dramatic orchestral journey that uses the film’s musical material as the departure point for a more original orchestral work.  The hall is a bit ambient in this recording which may be slightly off-putting at first but the ear settles in well.  The performance manages to stay crisp where it needs to and intonation is also quite good (especially in those very difficult higher registers).  Dynamic shifts are also very well handled with those slow, growing crescendos being quite impressive.  The music is shaped in a way that befits in concert orchestral focus so that the pieces feel better integrated into the whole.    

    For Herrmann completists, there is a lot here to be excited about.  The Whitman piece shows how Herrmann’s subtle musical support perfectly matches the text of this piece with gorgeous writing that rarely draws attention to itself.  That said, there are several quite moving moments throughout the work.  The quintet and Psycho selections area nice addition.  The result is a CD that draws in those in the art world with a possible filmic connection to discover some great music.

  • Violins of Hope

     

    Violins of Hope
    Niv Ashkenazi, violin. Matthew Graybill, piano.
    Sharon Farber, piano. Tony Campisi, narrator.
    Albany Records TROY 1810
    Total Time: 58:37
    Recording:   ****/****
    Performance: ****/****

    In the midst of a pandemic, an album with the title Violins of Hope is certainly a welcome experience.  This beautiful collection of 10 varied works for solo violin is a picture of musical approaches across the 20th Century gathered around the very instrument that is used to perform them.  Soloist Niv Ashkenazi perform here on a restored violin that comes from the Violins of Hope project.  The collection of instruments are restored violins that were owned by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust.  These are then loaned out for use to give these instruments a voice that cannot be silenced by the horrors of this moment in history.  Ashkenazi’s connection to the project has allowed him to have one of these instruments on a more long-term loan which has allowed him to capture a sense of the instrument’s unique voice and qualities.  His choice of bow is also worth noting as it comes from the same workshop of Ammon and Avshalom Weinstein and was constructed by Daniel Schmidt at the Israeli luthier’s business in the 1990s.

    The music for this release encapsulates works written during the lifetime of this particular instrument which is believed to have been constructed in Eastern Europe, or Germany, between 1900-29.  The repertoire is carefully chosen to explore the richness of this particular instrument featuring some familiar works, but some wonderful discoveries as well.

    Robert Dauber’s Serenade (1942) is a wonderful opener for the album that demonstrates Ashkenazi’s impeccable range of interpretation and tone.  There are some simply stunning moments in the upper register of the instrument coupled with a moving, engaging performance.  In fact, as the album continues, there is a real emotional core that Ashkenazi finds for these pieces.  There is that somber quality which is explored in “Nigun” from Bloch’s Baal Shem suite (1923) followed by a beautiful performance of John William’s theme from Schindler’s List (1993).  Julius Chajes’ melancholy The Chassid (1939) is an interesting work as well exploring Jewish musical gestures.  Some other brief excerpts here include the delightful “Dance of the Rebbitzen” from George Perlman’s Suite hebraique (1929), Paul Ben-Haim’s beautiful “Berceuse sfaradite”, and a “Kaddish” from Ravel’s Deux melodies hebraiques (1914, arranged by Lucien Garban in 1924).  Each of these explores Jewish melodic ideas within their unique modernist/impressionist styles.  Sharon Farber’s Bestimming: Triumph (2014, arr. 2019) is taken from her cello concerto.  It is a truly moving work that utilizes a narrated text about a Holocaust survivor who managed to save more than 150 children as part of the Dutch Resistance.  It is a powerful work with a grand, triumphant conclusion.

    Two multi-movement works are provided as a mid-point and conclusion to the album.  First is Szymon Laks’ Troi pieces de concert (1935) includes a modernist set of variations, a romance, and virtuosic moto perpetual motion finale.  Laks managed to survive Auschwitz though much of his earlier work was destroyed or lost.  This particular work existed only in a cello version but was reconstructed for violin in 2010.  Finally, the album concludes with Ben-Haim’s Three Songs Without Words (1945).  Here is a bit of a nutshell summary of the exploration of most of these composers in period modernism and somewhat expanded harmony and open intervals that grace music from this period.

    The notes accompanying this album help navigate these unfamiliar works well.  But it is the playing itself which will invite further listening.  This is a very well-chosen program of accessible (mostly) early 20th Century music that is filled with references to Hebraic melodies, but also plumbs the depths of the soul as one reflects upon the century.  Ashkenazi’s performances invite the listener into these works and captures the lyrical beauty of these pieces.  He allows the instrument to sing with moments that can sense the deep sadness and those which lift the spirits and move from melancholy to hope and triumph.  The program itself helps the listener move through these emotions as well as we can both enjoy what each piece has done, followed often by a more reflective musical work that offers us to consider what was lost.  He is served very well by his accompanist Matthew Graybil who provides excellent support to these interpretations.  Albany’s sound, captured in the wonderful Great Hall at California State University, Northridge, also is an asset with excellent sound imaging.

    Violins of Hope is an important release for those exploring both the repertoire explored here as well as being introduced to a great, thoughtful performer with an instrument that will not be silenced.  Highly recommended!