Here is a useful conspectus of Herrmann's concert music: an accessible introduction. It offers two substantial works: Concerto and Suite, fragments of two others and two brief works one of which (the prelude) was unknown to me.
The Concerto (from the film Hangover Square 1944) was introduced to most of us in Joaquin Achucarro's black toned performance on RCA/BMG in the early '70s Classic Film Scores series. No doubt this is still available and the sound is good. More recently there is the Naxos collection of film piano concertos. The competition is not direct. The BMG disc offers in the context of Herrmann's film music. The Naxos is a collection (a generous one) of tabloid film piano concertos by other composers. This KochRead more anthology drifts us into and out of each of the two worlds: concert and celluloid. The performance by everyone is basalt-dark and suitably Lisztian (Totentanz is the obvious parallel [did Herrmann conduct it at CBS?] but let's also recall Herrmann's score for On Dangerous Ground). I could not choose between the three recorded performances. You will not feel cheated with any of them.
The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941, dir Dieterle) was written very soon after he had finished the Citizen Kane score. The first movement of the five movement suite is dark and has some violent moments. The second has one of Herrmann's classic chastely lovely string tunes. Herrmann's love for British string orchestral music comes through but his characteristic overlay (a strange and dangerous sense of fragility) marks out the music as something special. The third movement: a barn dance, suggests the presence of a dark fiddler amongst the merrymaking like some scene from Poe's The Masque of the Red Death. Uproarious horn whoops preech Malcolm Arnold but any joy is shadowed with foreboding. The fourth movement is a sort of ghostly Valse Triste but the eruptive brass also sourly threaten and polarise the mood. The last movement sounds for all the world like some garishly lit fairground but sinister characters weave in and out of the happy crowds and clouds scud across the sky. The hammered chords suggest the score of the Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. The performance is the match for the Herrmann conducted recording on Unicorn.
For the Fallen is only the second commercial recording of this piece. It is a berceuse of almost seven minutes duration gently rocking and cradling. This is hearteasing consoling music (try also the quieter sections of Vaughan Williams' Dona Nobis Pacem 'The Hands of the sisters: death and night", words by Walt Whitman) and we can imagine how it must have spoken to those who heard it in concert in 1943 ... and later. Its message, the sincerity of Herrmann's voice and of this performance is utterly convincing. It would be a great companion to Barber's overused Adagio. The climax to which it works up gives a great sense of release and yet does not break the mood. Herrmann at moments like this is well and truly connected to the world of a composer he venerated: Edmund Rubbra. Rubbra's Fourth Symphony has much in common with this work. I have loved this Herrmann piece ever since hearing Herrmann's own recording on Unicorn.
The scherzo of the 1935 Sinfonietta for strings shows Herrmann the striding modernist bending and swaying the medium with invigorating confidence. This music was the style quarry for the desperate string writing of Psycho. The solo piano prelude from the same year was new to me. David Buechner (clearly a Herrmann specialist) takes us through its less than two minutes duration with apparently sure technique. The notes suggest a sketch for an orchestral work and certainly the contrasts suggests this as well. Good to have this on disc.
The Symphony (1941) needs to be heard complete but as an introduction this recording of the finale is fine. It also serves as a good conclusion to the disc overall. The clamorous mood of the opening is nicely varied with other romantic interludes. The music has a quasi-Baxian accent with touches of Finzi, Vaughan Williams, Kodaly and Nielsen. For a wartime symphony there is less of stormy turbulence than you might expect and much more in the way of celebration and horn-topped joy. An echo can be found in the last section of Bax's Symphony Spring Fire. Here however Herrmann's textures are always clear. The performance is a good one.
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