Marco Polo (8.225168)
Release Date: 2001
Conducted by William Stromberg
The Moscow Symphony Orchestra
|1.||Overture - The Snows Of Kilimanjaro||1:31|
|21.||Prelude - 5 Fingers||1:18|
|25.||The Old Street||1:37|
|Total Album Time:||66:24|
|by Josh Wisch
October 24, 2001
Few Bernard Herrmann scores deserve less than a listen, and most deserve a comprehensive commercial release. The Snows of Kilimanjaro and 5 Fingers are hardly exceptions. In the steady hands of the Marco Polo team these two scores receive an outstanding presentation, though the music itself - the soul of the album - only contains bits and pieces of "classic" Herrmann. Conductor William Stromberg and the Moscow Symphony Orchestra imbue these selections with much of their understanding and excitement. The result is imperfect, yet quite worthwhile.
The 1952 film of Ernest Hemingway's The Snows of Kilimanjaro turned the short story into a project that may have initially been "beneath" the composer (he said of Hemingway around the time of the film's release, "He is one of the best examples of an American writer who started out with much talent, and look what a complete piece of corn he's been for twenty-five years;" in turn, the author called the production, "The Snows of Zanuck," in dishonor of the film's producer), but it ultimately provided the composer with "many opportunities to write music of a highly nostalgic nature, inasmuch as the film deals with the tale of a man who is dying on the African veldt and during the fever of his illness relives much of his emotional past." Of course Herrmann's music is almost always an artistic reflection on life and death, so here the insertion of nostalgia means repetition. Apart from the self-contained, restless "Overture" and its three following tracks ("Nocturne", "Memory Waltz" and "Adagietto"), the score is a tough listen. The "Overture" is only alluded to once outside of the beginning of the score, but is related, Herrmann said, because it represents the lead character's disturbed state - a "problem, then solution" musical theory that he first explored in the 5 Fingers "Prelude". Ideas from the other introductory tracks - all of them exemplary in Herrmann's style, principally his atypically lyrical "Memory Waltz" - form the bulk of the remainder with un-exemplary variation. The highly limited shifts in dramatic tone gradually rob the score of the composer's better-known dynamic touch, notwithstanding the comparatively overblown final moments.
Less polished, but potentially more interesting from a biographical perspective of Herrmann's career, 1951's 5 Fingers hits the heights of composition and performance in the aforementioned "Prelude" and in sections such as "The Film", "The Old Street" and "The Pursuit," but in hindsight sounds and feels like a test run for his work for Alfred Hitchcock, with several passages that went on to blossom a few years later in those masterpieces. This World War II spy thriller includes false affection and the enemy's search for the Normandy invasion plans, and since the characters and situations are decidedly unsympathetic the music (making its album premiere here), puts forward mock sentimentality in its lighter moments and otherwise simmers, churns and boils to create an intellectually compelling, but emotionally cold, atmosphere.
Analytic listeners may agree with my rating, which observes the album as wholly educational if not entirely enjoyable. I suspect others will prefer to drop it down a notch or two. The production for the disc is up to the label's usual standard, including a rich book practically crammed into its slender insert, and an audio presentation faithful to the period. Taken as a whole, this is another dedicated release from Stromberg and reconstructionist John Morgan that promises to be like fine wine, just getting better with time's passing.
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