Herrmann: Moby Dick - Schønwandt

Herrmann: Moby Dick - Schønwandt

Chandos  CHSA 5095

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid


Bernard Herrmann: Moby Dick, Sinfonietta for Strings

Richard Edgar-Wilson (tenor)
David Wilson-Johnson (baritone)
Danish National Choir
Danish National Symphony Orchestra
Michael Schønwandt

Bernard Herrmann, born in New York in 1911 to Russian immigrants, is best known today as a composer of film music. Most notably he worked with Alfred Hitchcock on classic productions such as North by Northwest, Vertigo, and Psycho, as well as on Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. But despite his strong ties to Hollywood, Herrmann always thought of himself as a composer who worked in film, and never as a ‘mere’ film composer.

It was during his years as conductor and composer with the CBS Symphony Orchestra that Herrmann got the inspiration for Moby Dick – A Cantata. Initially, Herrmann intended the work as an opera, but he soon concluded that the stage was not an ideal medium for a musical version of Moby Dick – and a purely orchestral work could not make use of Herman Melville’s prose. A successful compromise was the cantata form, and Herrmann completed the work in 1938. It was premiered by John Barbirolli and the New York Philharmonic on 11 April 1940, the conductor describing the work as the most important work that he had heard from a young American composer.

For a short period in the early 1930s, Herrmann was inspired by the works of Arnold Schoenberg and his followers. The infatuation did not last long. It culminated – and ended – with the Sinfonietta for Strings of 1935 – 36, a work which never received a public performance. The Sinfonietta remained forgotten until the early 1960s when Herrmann adopted it as a model for the latter half of his famous film score to Hitchcock’s Psycho, which illustrates Norman Bates’s disturbed state of mind. This disc presents the premiere recording of the Sinfonietta in its original version.

The works are performed by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, joined by the Danish National Choir in Moby Dick, under the direction of Michael Schønwandt, Music Director of the Royal Danish Orchestra and the Royal Opera in Copenhagen, and Principal Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic.

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Reviews (1)

Review by Graham Williams - October 11, 2011

It is 43 years since a recording of Bernard Herrmann’s impressive cantata ‘Moby Dick’ appeared on disc. The composer’s own performance with the London Philharmonic Orchestra was issued first on the Pye Virtuoso label (LP) and eventually reached CD via Unicorn in a recording that, in truth, did not do justice to the piece. This vivid new SACD in state-of –the-art sound should win many friends for this neglected work.

Herman Melville’s novel ‘Moby Dick’ held a special place in Herrmann’s affections from his early childhood, so it is understandable that he was inspired to compose a work based on the novel. The idea of an opera was first considered and then rejected, as was a purely orchestral work, since this would eliminate the use of Melville’s prose. Eventually Herrmann and his lyricist William Clark Harrington settled on a cantata as the logical solution. ‘Moby Dick’ was composed between 1936 and 1938. It received its first performance in April 1940 conducted in New York by John Barbirolli who rated it very highly and became a champion of Herrmann’s music as well as a close friend of the composer.

‘Moby Dick’ is scored for a male chorus, five soloists (three of whom have minor parts) and a large orchestra. Herrmann’s pre-eminence as a film composer is immediately evident in his vivid orchestration and ability to create a musical picture to match the imagery of the text. On this recording Michael Schønwandt and his Danish forces give a stunning account of this rich score with suitably lusty singing from the superbly drilled Danish National Choir and marvellous orchestral playing from the Danish National Symphony Orchestra. David Wilson-Johnson’s performance as the driven Ahab is exceptionally powerful.

The Chandos recording is clean and immediate with tremendous impact - the balances between soloists, choir and orchestra exemplary. The use of the surround channels for more than just ambience adds considerably to the excitement of the performance.

In the 1930s Herrmann had a brief dalliance with the music of composers of the 2nd Viennese School and the short ‘Sinfonietta for Strings’ was the result. Though it was the composer’s first published work it never received a public performance. However in 1960, when Herrmann was composing the music for Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’, the Sinfonietta provided material for some of the latter part of the film score. The work is in five short movements, the last of which is a set of seven variations. It is a fascinating piece, not just for its association with Herrmann’s most famous film score, and receives an eloquent performance from the Danish National Orchestra strings.

This compelling release is a must for all fans of this prodigiously talented American composer and warrants an unqualified recommendation.

Copyright © 2011 Graham Williams and


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