Notes and Editorial Reviews
Franz Waxman is primarily known as a film composer, but he was a remarkably versatile musician. His musical roots were in jazz, and he went on to compose substantive music for the concert hall. He was also a formidable conductor, arranger, and impresario. Waxman was born in 1906 in Upper Silesia (which is now part of Poland). He received his formal musical training in Dresden and Berlin, where he worked as a pianist and orchestrator for a jazz band. Around this time, he met Friedrich Hollaender who asked him to orchestrate and conduct the score for the film classic The Blue Angel (produced by Erich Pommer and directed by Josef von Sternberg). After being mugged on the streets of Berlin in 1934, Waxman went to Paris, where he wrote his first
major score for Pommer’s Liliom. He then accompanied Pommer to the United States to arrange the music for Jerome Kern’s Music in the Air. His experience and reputation as a film composer quickly led him to Hollywood, where he composed his landmark score for The Bride of Frankenstein in 1935. Waxman immediately became the head of the music department of Universal Pictures while he was still in his twenties. He subsequently moved to MGM, where he composed numerous famous scores, including Captains Courageous, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Philadelphia Story. He was then loaned to David O. Selznick to compose the seminal score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. This music was so striking that directors frequently requested scores in the style of Rebecca over the next decade (for example, The Two Mrs. Carrolls, Night unto Night, and My Cousin Rachel). In 1943, Waxman began an association with Warner Bothers, where he joined Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Max Steiner to form the core of the central European Romantic musical tradition that dominated Hollywood’s Golden Age of Film Music. During this period he composed the popular Carmen Fantasie for the film Humoresque. It was performed on the soundtrack by Isaac Stern, and received its concert premiere by Jascha Heifetz in 1946.
After his period at Warner Brothers, Waxman became a freelance composer for the last two decades of his life, when he wrote many of his greatest scores, including Sunset Boulevard and A Place in the Sun (for which he won two consecutive Oscars), Prince Valiant, The Spirit of St. Louis, Sayonara, The Nun’s Story, and Taras Bulba. In 1947, he founded the Los Angeles International Music Festival, where the American, West Coast, or World premieres of 80 major works were given over the next 20 years. Waxman’s orchestra was utilized by Bruno Walter and Igor Stravinsky for West Coast recording projects. During this time Waxman also guest conducted many of the greatest orchestras in the world and composed his two most ambitious concert works (Joshua and The Song of Terezin, which received an electrifying recording on the Decca-London Entartete Music series in 1998). At the time of his death in 1967, he was working on the opera Dr. Jekyll and a cello concerto.
Though Waxman’s conservative style is firmly rooted in the late 19th century Romantic tradition, he frequently flirted with atonality without fully embracing it. His orchestration was more lean and transparent and his style more dissonant, edgy, and modernistic than the densely orchestrated, floridly romantic, and more conservative music of film composers like Steiner, Alfred Newman, Miklós Rózsa, and Elmer Bernstein. Waxman’s concert music is similar to his dramatic film music in that it is emotionally gripping and highly cinematic while at the same time it effectively adheres to the different constraints of the concert hall. This centenary of Waxman’s birth not only includes this premiere recording of Joshua. The Museum of Modern Art will host a 24-picture retrospective and discussion in December and January. The Turner Classic Movie network will air a 24-hour tribute on December 18th. Several new soundtracks are forthcoming, and concert tributes and screenings are planned throughout the United States and Europe. Deutsche Grammophon is also recording Alone in a Big City: The Franz Waxman Songbook for future release.
Joshua is a massive oratorio for narrator, soloists, mixed chorus, and large orchestra with organ. The text by John Forsyth is sung in English, and the score is dedicated to Waxman’s wife Alice. It begins with an arresting, pianissimo, sinuous, ascending Hebraic-flavored melody for solo oboe played over sustained string chords. From there, he launches into an intense and wide-ranging series of arias, choruses, and orchestral sinfonias interspersed with descriptive narrative. There are many dazzling orchestral effects. The dramatic highlight is “The Siege of Jericho” with its seven dissonant trumpets and complex orchestral and choral effects culminating in the chorus “Shout.” There is a striking similarity between this music and the spectral trumpet fanfares in Jerry Goldsmith’s score for Patton. In contrast, there are haunting flute, saxophone, and other soft woodwind solos. The aria “Rahab’s plea” contains a stark, reflective, descending woodwind melody (taken from Waxman’s score for The Silver Chalice) that creates a strikingly original sonority. The orchestration is magnificent, always maintaining a degree of transparency even with the most explosive Mahlerian din. Waxman’s choral writing is equally distinctive and masterful. The critic for the Dallas Morning News at the premiere called Joshua “compelling . . . vividly descriptive and easily accessible.” I can think of no better description of this powerful and moving music. Waxman’s principal influences are probably Shostakovich and Bartók. Think of the huge, wrenching, climaxes of the Shostakovich symphonies alternating with soft, plaintive, soloistic passages. Make no mistake though. This is pure Waxman. His style is as personal as it is unmistakable. The performance has the aura of a labor of love. Maximilian Schell has impeccable diction, ample gravitas, and is perhaps a bit melodramatic. All of the soloists sing their roles just about perfectly. Rod Gilfry, singing the demanding dual roles of Moses and Joshua, is particularly outstanding. The chorus and orchestra sound possessed, and James Sedares holds the vast performing forces together with precision and power.
Sonically, this is a difficult piece to record. The temptation to mike the narrator and soloists too closely is fortunately avoided. Only at the climactic “Shout” sequence are they overbearing, as they dramatically should be. There is plenty of fine inner detail that fully reveals every aspect of the complex orchestration and contrapuntal choral work. All of the disparate performing forces are well integrated as an ensemble.
Joshua will not be frequently performed for two reasons. The extensive role of the narrator militates against repeated, casual listening, and the huge performing forces preclude frequent concert performances. In this sense, it is an ideal candidate for a major recording that guarantees its musical immortality. As with the searing Decca recording of The Song of Terezin, this performance is indispensable for Waxman fans and any adventurous listener interested in finding a new and treasurable musical masterpiece. Clearly, this is Want List material.
FANFARE: Arthur Lintgen
Works on This Recording
Joshua by Franz Waxman
Peter Buchi (Tenor),
Ann Hallenberg (Mezzo Soprano),
Maxmilian Schell (Spoken Vocals),
Rodney Gilfry (Baritone)
Prague Philharmonic Chorus,
Prague Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Venue: Rudolfinum, Prague, Czech Republic
Length: 76 Minutes 25 Secs.
Notes: Rudolfinum, Prague, Czech Republic (07/2004 - 08/2004)
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