on 16 November 2007
1. Erich Wolfgang Korngold's score for the 1941 film THE SEA WOLF (TSW) is dark, foreboding, and end-to-end disturbing. This, of course, is just what the composer intended given what's happening on screen. However, the score scans the film is not a totally enjoyable listen as performed on this CD. Compared to the Gold and Platinum Standards (more on these in a moment), it could have been better.
2. Music from TSW is (and seems to have always been) the least popular of Korngold's film scores from a composer who became and remains not all that popular to begin with (we will revisit the popularity problem shortly). Live concert performances of cues from TSW are virtually unheard of (I know of none), and recorded versions on any medium are relatively few (exactly three when you exclude duplicate releases). This despite the continued availability of the original, fully-orchestrated score. (The harmonica is prominently featured in Korngold's score. It could be Korngold believed that sailors who like music are harmonica enthusiasts or that film goers think so.) TSW is also one of the shortest (if not the shortest--future restorations will be the deciding factor here) film scores Korngold created. There may be a good reason for this. Perhaps TSW was not one of Korngold's personal favorites and, in the final analysis, was his least favorite film score. My ears tell me that Korngold never re-worked cues from TSW into his subsequent film and concert compositions. If true, this was very atypical behavior for the composer. Korngold was a master of thematic variations. Themes in his film music were often recycled from earlier works (both concert and film compositions), and concert pieces that were composed during and after his days at Warner Bros. usually contained variations on leitmotivs from his film scores. There is another issue which is more troubling.
3. Just what type of species is the TSW score anyway? Can it be classified as a symphony, a tone poem, a grab bag of themes or what? Unlike Korngold's other film scores, the architecture of the TSW is not symphonic, at least not in the classical or traditional sense. Nor is it a typical U-shaped film score. Film scores often follow a roughly U-shaped curve of dynamic creativity. The most distinctive, unique, and, hence, enjoyable music occurs during and in the vicinity of the opening and closing credits (this is why film-score compilations typically focus on the music from the beginning and/or end of a score). The music from TSW most decidedly does not follow a U-shaped curve. And the score transcends any attempt to classify it as just a collection, however fine, of themes and variations. This pretty much leaves tone poem. This is what Mr. Brendan Carroll, the renown Korngold authority, calls it in the CD booklet (see below). I guess you can count me in.
4. TSW music on the CHANDOS CD is a milestone. Kudos to the label for providing us with the first modern recording of the complete score of Korngold's TSW! And the complete mini score from the film's trailer to boot. No musical stone has been left unturned this time. The sound is flat-out superb. More kudos to CHANDOS for employing an orchestra whose size and composition matches the challenging instrumental demands of the original, fully-orchestrated score! There is an oak-panel like richness to the recording that is often missing in other re-recorded classical film scores. This sumptuous spectrum of sound is no doubt due in part to the size of the orchestra. Sound engineering and mixing also contribute as well as provide a studied symmetry between orchestra sections and individual instruments (and there are several unusual instruments to be heard from). The performance also gives every indication that a fair amount of rehearsal time and effort went into the final product.
5. The CD booklet is outstanding. Its author, Brendan G. Carroll, brings together just the right balance of film analysis and score de-construction. As an added bonus, the booklet features a rare photo (courtesy of Mr. Carroll) of Korngold with his favorite orchestrators, Hugo Friedhofer and Ray Heindorf, hard at work (presumably between recording sessions) on the Warner sound stage. End of the good news.
6. The conducting on this CD is undermined by the periodic, snail-like pace of the performance. There is often too little that is exciting to hear here. Retarded tempo is endemic in modern recordings of Korngold's film symphonies, and the CHANDOS CD clearly adds to that epidemic. Compared to the Gold Standard established by the late Charles Gerhardt in the 1970's (the reference recording can be found in track four on ELIZABETH AND ESSEX, BMG RCA Victor GD80185, 1973), the conducting on the current CD can be ponderous at best. Then there's the OST Platinum Standard (the reference recording is THE SEA WOLF, Tsuami TSU 0144, 2003). Compared to Korngold's command of the orchestra and his lightening fast baton, the CHANDOS recording frequently sounds like it is on life support. The energy that Korngold imparts to his score is phenomenal. His orchestra's performance remains unsurpassed after almost 65 years!
7. This CD also includes excerpts from Korngold's score for the 1938 film THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (TAORH). Boos to CHANDOS for going cheap with a worn out (but inexpensive) musical filler just to increase CD playing time. This is the 25th CD that contains essentially the same collection of bits and pieces from TAORH! A complete and definitive recording was recently released (on CD and DVD-A) by Marco Polo (8.225268 and 5.220501, respectively). While the performance on the current CD is better than average, it, not unexpectedly, pales by comparison to the Marco Polo reference recording. The label could have just released a shortened CD with only the TSW score and, perhaps, reduced the price accordingly. Or contributed something equally rare like a concert of cues from, say, the 1955 film the MAGIC FIRE.
8. "Eric Wolfgang Korngold" is a name rarely encountered (there is one regional exception) in the concert hall, the opera house or in the musical media be it the printed press, the pixel press, Internet streams and downloads or recording formats. Many theories have been propounded for this unfortunate situation ranging from "out-of-date music" to repertory downsizing and standardization to copyright greed to ancient hostilities stemming from a serious composer "going Hollywood." The list goes on. Korngold's popularity problem is probably due to all of these factors. But in stark contrast, we have the "wow factor." This usually occurs when a listener encounters Korngold's music for the first time. S/he becomes an immediate (and addicted!) fan. So far, the chances of an encounter have remained few and far between (I have heard Korngold's music on the radio all of three times! And from the same station). With new Internet technologies continually emerging, perhaps this protracted (and connived?) chicken-and-egg situation will soon suffer a fate similar to the GHOST ship in TSW.
William F. Flanigan, Jr., Ph.D.