Sinfonietta for String Orchestra/Herrmann

October 1, 2011

In the early 90’s the now defunct Koch label released a series of recordings that featured classic works of film composers. Many of the recordings were world premiere and introduced the listener to material from Herrmann, Waxman, Korngold, and Rozsa. This release offers four compositions two of which are world premiere introductions. The recording features The Berlin Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Isaiah Jackson.

Bernard Herrmann, a member of Aaron Copland’s Young Composer’s Group along with Jerome Moross, was intrigued enough with the avant-garde works of Arnold Schoenberg to try his hand at an atonal composition himself. As it turned out Sinfonietta for String Orchestra (1935 revised in 1975) became his first published work. Herrmann had other interests including conducting the CBS Symphony Orchestra, writing for Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater and later doing soundtracks for his films “Citizen Kane,” “Magnificent Ambersons” and “Devil and Daniel Webster,” that he set the work aside until he began working on “Psycho” (1960). It was at this point that some of the material became quite appropriate for the creepy underscore of the film. In 1975 he revised the work but passed away before he had an opportunity to record the work.

The five part seventeen minute work follows the rules of the twelve-tone system but not being a musical expert I cannot say for certain that it is. It is quite atonal and sounds that way to my ear. This is not a work that you’re going to hear even a hint of a melody. There is counterpoint but only to harmonize with the atonal material.

The “Prelude” is definitely conveys a sense of urgency and agitation but overall it is a thought provoking movement in a minor key that sets the mood for the rest of the work. The “scherzo” definitely sets a tone with a jagged dissonant mood. The piece is now quite agitated as it is searching for an answer to a question it can’t answer. The strings are in an upper register somewhat swirling and the low register bass enhances the urgency. The mood changes yet again as the “Adagio” plays out a subdued section. It is like your fate is determined and though you struggle with your feelings you resign yourself to accepting it. The “Interlude” repeats phrases and at this point in the work especially through the lower register strings you can feel the Germanic influence in the work. “Variations” is the final movement and the longest at five plus minutes and offers the listener a conclusion which is quite somber. Here is where the dissonance is at its greatest point. It abruptly ends without warning. If you’re quite familiar with his Psycho score you can easily pick up passages that were used to convey a feeling when Bates was acting out the part of his mother.

Each of the four works will be reviewed separately this being the 1st of four. It is still available for purchase as a physical CD or it is available as a download from Amazon. For this reviewer I found it a welcome addition to the collection as it further supplemented the Psycho material I already had. The sound quality was acceptable having been recorded in digital although I found the material quite neutral with an overall lack of crispness. This is merely a decision on the part of the engineer and not a fault in the recording. I prefer my material with a higher amount of dynamic range. The orchestra appears to have done their rehearsals and the performance was well played. The liner notes were provided by Christopher Palmer and Christopher Gabriel Husted two well known and respected musicologists and both provided useful information.

Track Listing:

1…. Prelude (3:48)

2…. Scherzo (2:51)

3…. Adagio (3:29)

4…. Interlude (2:18)

5…. Variations (5:04)

Total Time is 17:30

Koch CD# is 3-7152-2 HI

Isaiah Jackson conducts the Berlin Symphony Orchestra

This newly released Chandos recording (CSA 5095) performed by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Schonwandt has the advantage of the newer digital recording technology. The greater tempo of the scherzo makes it a lot more Herrmannesque sounding. The adagio is similar in sound. The interlude on the new release is a bit quieter giving it a better dynamic range. The variations is better on the new recording offering more feeling and definitely that Herrmann sound. I prefer the Koch recording as far as the prelude is concerned. It offers a nice full sound and a comfortable pace. Your choice between the recordings is do you want Moby Dick or Rozsa and Waxman?



One Response to “Sinfonietta for String Orchestra/Herrmann”

  1. Leks Says:

    “Film Music: The Neglected Art”

    This is the truth indeed! There are a great pieces of art among the film music, some of which are from my favorites, Miklós Rózsa and Bernard Herrmann. It would be a greatest loss if it became forgotten.

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