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The Trouble with Harry

The Trouble with Harry

Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by Joel McNeely, 1998.

Varese Sarabande VSD-5971 (CD, 1998).
This film has been little seen. For some reason it does not seem to have made it to UK BBCTV or independent TV very often. In fact I cannot recall a single showing. The cast included Shirley Maclain and Edmund Gwenn.

This was a milestone film for Herrmann. It was his first Hitchcock outing. The music itself (or elements of it) may be familiar under another title. When Herrmann was in the studio for Phase Four Decca in 1968 he fashioned a concert piece from it and called it "A Portrait of Hitch". He did this because he felt that this music reflected Hitch's dry and diabolic sense of humour.

This is the world premiere of the music as it was originally written and it is another triumphant step in Varese-Sarabande's noble project of recording all the Herrmann film scores.

The orchestral specification is modest: double wind, four horns, harp and strings. As was his usual custom he uses the orchestra in smaller groupings selecting a colour from his palette to match mood and image.

The music he wrote for the film exposes veins and arteries of winning freshness. Not one of the forty tracks is poor or misjudged. Herrmann gives every sign of having been totally immersed in lyricism and of enjoying every moment of it. Although the mise-en-scène of is New England the composer has followed his heart's desire and sought to evoke old England. There are certainly moments of tension but they are played against autumnally fresh pastoral backdrops. While it is well known that Herrmann was an ardent Anglophile he rarely loses his own voice and succeeds in mood evocation largely without patent borrowing from Butterworth or Vaughan Williams.

The recording and the spiritedly precise performance display impressive terracing of sound with gargoyle-leering brass contrasted with children's playground games (it sounds similar to "Bobby Shaftoe"). The terracing and well- judged balance is especially evident in track 3 with clarinet alternating with bassoon and the noble horns "collapsing" into a despairing snarl on the fourth note of a 4-note figure. The final track (40) mixes a clock-like ticking, sour brass, a horn-punched figure and the same "Bobby Shaftoe" song.

Track 8 is another one of Herrmann's jingling, hoar-frosty, jog-trot troika- rides. A parallel is Carriage and Pair by Benjamin Frankel. Herrmann had a penchant for haycart or sleighride music (see also the music for Kane) and must presumably have known Delius's Sleigh-Ride. This instance is an urbane, lively and brilliantly lit piece of delicate but muscular writing for the strings. It deploys a thoughtful and rather beautiful theme relaxing into a lovely oboe solo beloved of his British models - Finzi, RVW, Butterworth and Howells. Tracks 2 and 16 also have similar material and treatment with a heart-easing oboe melody which though starting in England seems to end in Ruralia America close to the heartlands of Copland and Roy Harris. A clarinet serenade with oboe and flute twining like lithe lovers reappears in track 38 and is in much the same spirit.

Tracks 9 and 39 use something remarkably like the penguins' theme from RVW's film symphony: Sinfonia Antartica. I am sure Herrmann must have heard it and probably had conducted the piece. Track 12 has chipping-chirping bassoons in a way foreshadowing the miminalist ticks and tricks beloved of Glass and Nyman.

The Valse Lent (20) is sweetly, curvaceous and innocent. There is no sourness; just a whiff of Gauloise. Miss Gravely Digs has a Baxian humour, capering about like a dancing pig. The gossamer harp and light Ravelian strings of track 24 evoke a spider web of sound. This contrasts with Phantom Coach (25) and its downward driving figure on harp and woodwind which seems to picture the soul of a subdued autumn. The Walk (26) serenades with Straussian sweetness relaxing into wispy ideas and dreaming visions. Track 28 is a Howellsian oboe serenade: clean and clear. Mischief is afoot (29) and Baxian twilight settles on the woodland scene (30) with leaves drifting and falling. This sombreness is offset by a delightful curvaceous theme (31) which is gradually dispelled by (32) a ticking harp conveying the concentrated tension we expect from Shostakovich. This returns in track 35. Mahlerian woodwind interjections characterise track 34.

Playing time is short although I have heard shorter. In fairness the duration of the CD was not in my mind while listening. The music has a dewy freshness - it sings a clarion air of delight.

Painting on the booklet cover is by Matthew Joseph Peak and the notes are representatively excellent.

Listen to audio excerpts of Overture (ra, 74K) and The Doctor (ra, 81K).

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International Society for the Appreciation of the Music of Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975)