Bernard Herrmann: Suite from Wuthering Heights; Echoes for strings. © 2023 Chandos Records Ltd

CD Spotlight

Smothered into Oblivion?

Music by Bernard Herrmann, fervently recommended by GERALD FENECH

'This is impassioned advocacy for this American genius, in heartfelt performances full of unbridled emotion and unaffected sincerity.'


Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975) was an American composer and conductor best known for his work in composing for films. As a conductor, he championed the music of lesser-known composers. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest film composers. Alex Ross writes that:

Over four decades, he revolutionized movie scoring by abandoning the illustrative musical techniques that dominated Hollywood in the 1930s and imposing his own peculiar harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary.

An Academy Award Winner for The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), Herrmann is known for his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock. Indeed, he wrote the scores for seven Hitchcock films, from The Trouble with Harry (1955) to Marnie (1964), a period that included Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho. Herrmann's most famous score remains that for Psycho. Using only the string section of the orchestra, the music was very unusual for a thriller at the time. The screeching violin heard during the famous shower scene is one of the most impressive moments in film score history.

Herrmann's music is typified by frequent use of ostinati, novel orchestration and an ability to portray character traits not altogether obvious from other elements of the film. Maybe, at this stage, one gets the impression that Herrmann wrote only film music, but this is not the case. Indeed, he wrote for the concert hall and for the stage, and although relatively unknown, he also composed an opera, Wuthering Heights, which had to wait until April 2011 to get a complete theatrical performance, despite being recorded by the composer way back in 1966.

Herrmann started work on the opera in April 1943 while composing the film score for Jane Eyre. Cast in a prologue, four Acts and an epilogue that repeats the music of the prologue, the piece was finished in 1951. The libretto was by Herrmann's first wife Lucille Fletcher, based on the first part of Emily Brontë's 1847 novel of the same name. By the time the work was finished the couple had divorced and Herrmann married Lucille's cousin Lucy. Although the work is largely unknown, Lucille said it was 'perhaps the closest to his talent and heart'.

It seems that Herrmann was very exacting in what he did; indeed, when he completed composition he quoted the time and day of the finished piece: 30 June 1951 at 3.45pm in Minneapolis.

Having never heard a note from this opera, my approach to this disc was that of curiosity and apprehension. But listening to Hans Sørensen's superbly contrived Suite, which also includes voices, I was hugely surprised by the beauty of the music, which is wholly different from Herrmann's film music.

Listen — Herrmann, adapted by Sørensen: Oh, Cathy!
(Suite from 'Wuthering Heights')
(CHSA 5337 track 1, 2:29-3:28) ℗ 2023 Chandos Records Ltd :

True, the soundworld is that of the twentieth century, but this opera has an abundance of melody that mixes perfectly with the tension and drama of the story. It is mystifying how this outstanding opera has almost been smothered into oblivion.

Listen — Herrmann, adapted by Sørensen: Will you say so, Heathcliff!
(Suite from 'Wuthering Heights')
(CHSA 5337 track 11, 1:04-2:00) ℗ 2023 Chandos Records Ltd :

This programme also includes a 1965 piece that is full of charm and soft-sounding colours. Echoes for string quartet has also been arranged for string orchestra by Hans Sørensen. A version this, that brings out all the imaginative flair of the composer.

Listen — Herrmann, adapted by Sørensen: Echoes for Strings
(CHSA 5337 track 20, 17:48-18:46) ℗ 2023 Chandos Records Ltd :

This is impassioned advocacy for this American genius, in heartfelt performances full of unbridled emotion and unaffected sincerity. An invaluable addition to the Herrmann catalogue, in sumptuous sound and irreproachable booklet notes, it comes fervently recommended.

Copyright © 21 June 2023 Gerald Fenech,
Gzira, Malta



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