Classical Music Review: New Releases

The Paradine Case: Hollywood Piano Concertos by Waxman, Herrmann, North.  James Sedares and The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; David Buechner, piano; Donald Armstrong, violin solos; John Taber, trumpet obbligato.  Koch International Classics 3-7225-2.

Like all theatrical composers, film composers are expected to write music responsive to and expressive of the drama's atmosphere and period, and so it helps if the composer has a working knowledge of historic styles.  The three on this CD had efficient schooling and on the job training.  Franz Waxman (1906-1967) was born in Germany and studied in Dresden and Berlin; New Yorker Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975) studied at Juilliard with Wagenaar, and wrote scores for CBS radio, conducted its orchestra, and composed for Orson Welles' famed Mercury Theatre; and Alex North (1910-1991) trained at Juilliard, Curtis and the Moscow Conservatory and privately with Copland and Toch, and started out writing for modern dance and live theatre.

Waxman's score for Hitchcock's The Paradine Case (1947) depicts its three main characters.  The music, called here "Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra", is European late Romantic, with sweeping themes and sudden ritards.  The writing, especially for piano, electric violin and winds is subtle, skillful and evocative, with hints of Richard Strauss.  Waxman would later refer to that composer's Salome by using wind tremolos and atmospheric low string writing in Norma Desmond's final scene in his Oscar-winning score for Sunset Boulevard (1950).

The overheated atmosphere continues in Herrmann's music for Hangover Square, "Concerto Macabre for Piano and Orchestra" (1944/1972).  The composer goes one step farther than Waxman -- his is marked moderato appassionato while Herrmann's is molto appassionato.  Supposedly the work of the crazy composer who's the subject of the film, it abounds in Herrmann's trademark harmonic moves -- augmented and diminished 7ths -- along with bittersweet themes, bravura passage work which sometimes quotes the "Dies Irae" and even a tarantella.  The composer is also represented here by a loud but very Schoenbergian "Prelude for Piano" (1935).

Things sound a lot more normal in Alex North's Concerto for Piano with Trumpet Obbligato (1939/1957), parts of which were used in the 1957 film Four Girls in Town, directed by Jack Sher.  It's also the most unconventional piece here -- it doesn't pit the piano against the orchestra, it's generally high-spirited and thoroughly original in its blending of vernacular sources -- popular music and blues.  The first movement, "Moderato: Jazz", is a steady progression of orchestral/piano groupings with thrilling writing for percussion, including xylophone, marimba, and drums.  The second, "Lento", composed as a lament for Gershwin in 1939 -- he died in 1937 -- is distinguished by a tune of heartfelt simplicity, while the concluding allegro is a syncopated general dance with carefully calibrated rhythmic/textural shifts.  Though reconstructed from the composer's sketches by Mark McGurty and advertised here as a world premier, the piece was originally recorded on Decca and re-released on Varese Sarabande, with Andre Previn as pianist, Ray Linn on trumpet, and Joseph Gershenson conducting.  That one seems casual-jazzy next to this big band one, though I prefer the more languorous slow movement in the original.

Waxman's "The Charm Bracelet" (1947) is a suite of five piano-only miniatures intended as a birthday present for his young son John who produced much music from Hollywood's golden and silver age.  "The Golden Heart" is especially lovely -- delicate and subtle -- and a kind of Debussyan lullaby.

Pianist David Buechner (he's since had a sex change like Wendy Carlos before him, which I'm told, is all over the net) and the New Zealand Symphony under James Sedares give alert style-conscious performances and the sound, though digital, is quite warm.

Michael McDonagh

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