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Music Review: Elizabeth and Essex: The Classic Film Scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold

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On one level the only sensible way to evaluate a film score would be to look at it as an organic part of the film for which it was written. A successful film score would be one that worked together with all the other elements of the film—the set design, the costumes, the acting and what have you—to create a cohesive work of art larger than itself. In theory the film score is not intended as an independent work of art. Still as has often been noted intentions aren’t everything, and since much fine, even great music, has been composed to be played over love scenes and bloody battles, music that clearly seems able to stand up in its own right, the film score has become a significant standalone musical genre, much like for example the ballet suite. It is in a sense simply another variant on the idea of program music.

Some of the credit for this recognition of the form has got to be given to Charles Gerhardt’s Classic Film Score Series of the ’70s. Recorded originally for RCA with the National Philharmonic Orchestra in 1972, the first of the LP’s was Erich Korngold’s score for The Sea Hawk. Its critical and popular success led to other albums devoted to the work of a variety of composers many of whom are now household names: Dmitri Tiomkin, Bernard Herrmann, Alfred Newman and others. Sony Masterworks is now reissuing a number of albums from this series, six of which were released last October; six more covering the work of many of these masters will be available on the first of March. Among them will be Elizabeth and Essex: The Classic Film Scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

I must say that ever since I got a copy of Gil Shaham’s 1994 recording of the Korngold violin concerto, I have been an admirer of that composer’s lush romantic style. It is a concerto that deserves a place with the best of the compositions—by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn—for the instrument. So it was something like meeting an old friend again when first the theme from the concerto’s first movement appeared in the “Night Scene” section from Another Dawn, and then the main theme from The Prince and the Pauper showed up as the foundation of the last movement. If nothing else, it illustrates the seriousness with which Korngold took his film music. But it is so much more than that; his Cello Concerto in C, Op. 37 is an expansion of the music he composed for the film Deception.

Gerhardt’s is the first recording of the Cello Concerto. It features Francisco Gabarro, a pupil of Pablo Casals and the principal cellist of the National Philharmonic, as soloist. Unusual in form, it consists of one movement with three separate parts. It opens with an allegro passage rife with passion. This is followed by a contrasting adagio section, and the piece ends with a fugato. Gabarro plays with ardor and sensitivity. The whole is not quite 12 minutes in length, but it is 12 minutes filled with variety and excitement, and has a much more modern feeling than some of Korngold’s other music.

The album opens with an Overture assembled by the composer from the music for The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex for the film’s 1939 world premiere. It is made up of five sequences: “Fanfare,” “Essex’ Victory March,” “Elizabeth,” “Defeat in Ireland,” and “Love Theme.” The music is rich and lush in typical Hollywood manner; it is no wonder it was nominated for an Academy Award. Besides the gorgeous “Night Scene” and the theme from The Prince and the Pauper, the album also includes a short piece from Korngold’s score for Anthony Adverse, the film for which he won his first Academy Award. “In the Forest” is a lyrical complement to what the album notes call the scene’s “aching hopelessness” of “illicit love.” In contrast there is the violence of the music for The Sea Wolf, the filmed version of the Jack London novel. The CD closes with a suite from Of Human Bondage, its variety once again showing the composer’s versatility.

With Gerhardt conducting, Korngold’s music is in good hands. He takes it seriously. The orchestra plays with that lush richness that characterizes the best ensembles. These are performances that make you aware of just how fine a composer Erich Korngold was. These are performances that make you aware of what a fine conductor Charles Gerhardt was. These are performances that make you aware of just how fine the National Philharmonic was. It is fortunate to have them available again.

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