Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Paging Mr. Herrmann

Since I've been watching a lot of Alfred Hitchcock movies on DVD recently, I picked up a copy of Esa-Pekka Salonen's Hitchcock-heavy recording of Bernard Herrmann film score selections with the L.A. Philharmonic. The short version of my impression of it is: This is a great album, and a relative bargain as a mid-priced Sony CD reissue (it's a choice offering in their "Great Performances" series, which I haven't visited since I was in the market for Wagner excerpts in high school). The long, close to track-by-track version follows, so if you're bored already you might want to skip the next several paragraphs.


The disc opens with Herrmann's thunderous fanfare to The Man Who Knew Too Much, which Salonen provides admirably dramatic and punchy direction for, then settles into what may be the best film music ever composed: the Suite for Strings extracted from Psycho. The L.A. Philharmonic's string sections give Herrmann's orchestral textures their full and serious due, from the obsessively pulsing music that underscores Janet Leigh's drive through the rain to the iconic shrieking of the shower scene. (Salonen's deliberately paced but primal take on the murder music is one of the few non-cartoonish forms of that cue you're likely to find outside of the movie itself; it should immediately make you want to throw away any Cincinnati Pops recordings of the same material that you may still have from your teenage years.) The strongest material in the suite, though, comes in "The Swamp", where high and slowly rising figures in the violins give the music a gaseous, expressionistic cast. The suite definitely sounds like a suite -- the selections don't preserve any of the movie's narrative shape -- but it's twenty minutes of finely crafted musical dread; I'd love to see a concert programmer willing to offer this alongside Richard Strauss' Metamorphosen, or one of Shostakovich's quartets transcribed for string orchestra. It doesn't reach for those compositions' depths but it deserves to be taken as seriously as any of the 19th-century comic opera overtures in the standard repertoire.

(True fact: If your neighbor in the adjacent apartment starts hammering a nail into the other side of your shared bedroom wall while you're listening to the soundtrack from Psycho, it will seriously freak you out.)

At the pole opposite Herrmann's bare, exposed string Psycho orchestration is his luscious "Scene D'Amour" from Vertigo -- if you've ever wanted to open-mouth kiss an impossibly beautiful woman while waves crash against rocks in the background, this is your scene. Salonen's finely detailed, almost time-slowing treatment of the harmonies early in the track recalls Debussy's Nocturnes, though the swelling climaxes are too broad to smolder like Herrmann's own takes in the original soundtrack. "The Nightmare" is more easily pulled off, a likeably extrovert Spanish dance that's slightly heavy-footed and campy around the edges, but the gem of the Vertigo suite is the "Prelude": It opens with glassy, hypnotic musical clockwork before broadening into a dark musical vortex on a cosmic scale, spiraling around the gravitational center of the film's aching, descending main theme. Decoupled from Hitchcock's extreme close-ups of Kim Novak it sounds like music for spiritually probing science fiction -- it would have been a perfect score for Steven Soderbergh's adaptation of Solaris, if that movie had gotten Lem's story right.

As with Vertigo's love scene, Salonen sweeps too much in the sweeping Prelude to Hitchcock's technically virtuosic but distractingly Freudian Marnie: The conductor downplays the theme's tunefulness, which would otherwise leaven Herrmann's romantic excess a little. The music from "The Hunt" sounds more than anything else on the album like an exposed underscore -- the track's dramatic shifts sound somewhat arbitrary when they're disconnected from Hitchcock's nimble beats in the film. Still, it's rich and charismatic stuff. It's also easily the most luxuriant music for a drama built on completely implausible female psychosexuality since Strauss' Die Frau Ohne Schatten.

In contrast to his interpretations of the Marnie and Vertigo themes, Salonen's take on the North By Northwest overture whips by too fast for the melody to take hold. It's an invigorating, percussive whirlwind of a read, though, and if it wouldn't raise the curtain on the film as well as Herrmann's more deliberate pace on the original soundtrack it makes for a bracing mid-album selection. If you're in the mood for musical games, start the track at the 1:30 mark and for half a minute pretend you're listening to a Third Fanfare for Orchestra by John Adams, circa 1986.

Music from Herrmann's rejected score for Torn Curtain provides some brief and enjoyable out-thereness. This one apparently broke off Hitchcock's collaboration with Herrmann, after the director requested more hummable, conventionally marketable music but received a score that's by turns brooding and angular/edgy, with an off-balance orchestration about midway between Bruckner's 4th and Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms.

I've never seen Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451, though the suite extracted from Herrmann's score for strings, harps, and percussion is fine enough, if lacking in as many big moments as the other selections. The mallet percussion provides a hauntingly crystalline touch, particularly in the "Prelude", which could out-Elfman the opening themes of most Tim Burton productions featuring both stop-motion puppets and snowfall. The track for "The Road" is gorgeous as well, though it owes enough to Samuel Barber that it could be cross-listed under Elephant Man and Platoon.

The richly satisfying and stylistically farther-away finale to the disc is seven minutes of music drawn from Herrmann's final score, for Scorsese's Taxi Driver. I wish the L.A. Philharmonic's alto sax soloist were less bright and more attuned to the music's loungy, almost somnambulent style, but otherwise Salonen and the ensemble get the sonorities just right: The music perfectly mirrors Travis Bickle's murky, color-saturated nighttime monologues. (Note: This album not recommended as accompaniment to non-psychotic night driving.) If Herrmann ever heard Ned Rorem's tone poem "Lions (A Dream)" then I think he borrowed liberally from that piece's sensibility, but it's likelier they both independently struck on the same kind of velvety, smoky soundscape, smooth jazz verging on dream verging on nightmare...

I'm listening to Adams' Harmonielehre as I type this (Note: Harmonielehre not recommended as accompaniment to non-psychotic bus riding) and it strikes me how much that piece sounds like an extension of Herrmann's tonal sonorities, orchestral lushness, distantly poppy sense of momentum. (Credit to Salonen, too, for pointing Herrmann's compositions further inward than they can probably go when they're directly supporting images on the screen.) The very skimpy blurb inside the liner of the Sony reissue, rendered down from a probably already slender Alex Ross essay, asserts that "what distinguishes Herrmann from most Hollywood composers is that his work can be heard very much on its own terms"; listening through it all I find it hard to disagree.


Blogger Jack said...

I'm going to have to look that up.

At least a couple of Salonen's own orchestra pieces have short, Hitchcock-style titles ("Mania," "Insomnia") and I'm curious whether the Hitchcock/Hermann style resonates with them. Salonen does write with the same kind of restless forward motion that Adams runs with in Harmonielehre, so it doesn't sound like a stretch.

You're right that more of this stuff should get onto orchestra programs. I wish more conductors took it seriously.

The soundtrack to "Taxi Driver" is the best movie music I know of. Those poisonous jazz chords sliding by really set the atmosphere.

By the way, it took me a minute to come up with the tone of voice that makes your post title funny, but I did get it.

9/06/2006 6:36 PM  

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