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Psycho (2)


Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by Joel McNeely.

Varese Sarabande VSD-5765 (CD, 1997).
Let me make my prejudices plain: I am a Bernard Herrmann aficionado (one of the few, apparently) who prefers the master's versions of his own work on almost every occasion. Where others describe his 1975 Unicorn-Kanchana recording of the score for Psycho (UKCD 2021) as lethargic or lackluster, for example, I have always found it stately, subtle and stirring. Thus, on the face of it, I was not inclined to welcome a new interpretation of this classic work--arguably one of the best film scores ever written, and certainly a highlight of Herrmann's fruitful decade-long collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock--even when presented by such a proven, skillful interpreter as Joel McNeely.

What's more, Psycho occupies a special place even in the context of the very special relationship between Herrmann's music and Hitchcock's best later work. The score is unusual for its orchestration (strings only, to complement the stark black-and-white cinematography) and for the degree to which the final impact of the film depends on it. Probably the only other Hitchcock-Herrmann collaboration to rival it in this respect is Vertigo, where whole passages of the film are carried entirely by the music. As great as the soundtrack for North by Northwest is, one can imagine the film working fairly well with someone else's music. Not so with Vertigo, and especially not with Psycho. What's more, this score stands solidly on its own and in my opinion rivals Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste as one of the preeminent string compositions of the 20th century.

While to my mind, then, there is much at stake in a fairly close race between these two versions, McNeely's superb rendition is indeed the definitive one, for several reasons. First, it is the only truly complete version. It introduces a cue written for the film but never before recorded ("The Cleanup," similar to but more chilling than "The Water"), and it restores another cue (the penultimate "Discovery") to its proper length and impact. For completists, this recording is a must.

But it should also be welcomed by any fans of the film or the composer who want to hear the music presented in the best possible way. The disc benefits greatly from the improved recording technology of the 1990s; there is more clarity and distinction between the instruments, and the improved dynamic range makes for a richer sound overall. And on the whole, I prefer the incisive playing of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, moving to McNeely's sensitive wand, to the "National Philharmonic Orchestra" assembled by Herrmann for the 1975 recording. For what Herrmann described as a "monochromatic" score with the inherent constraints of a strings-only orchestra, McNeely and company achieve an amazing amount of color.

McNeely's most important contribution, though, is in the timings. While his hour-long version actually clocks in at almost exactly the same length as Herrmann's 1975 version (allowing for the one new cue and the one expanded cue), there are significant variations in length in about a dozen of the cues. With few exceptions, McNeely opts to make the fast cues faster and the slow cues slower, accentuating the effect of the music in each case. The most discernible difference is in the unforgettable opening cue, "The Prelude," which McNeely restores to a frantic tempo closer to that of the film itself. The second cue, on the other hand (a quietly disturbing motif called "The City"), he stretches out to almost 45 seconds longer than Herrmann's 1975 version.

Herrmann's full-length recording is still generally preferable in those few instances where McNeely chooses not to make the fast cues faster or the slow ones slower. And there is one cue (the short but crucial "The Body," a recapitulation of the infamous, stabbing "Murder" theme that has become one of the few universally recognized pieces of film music) which McNeely compresses in what sounds to these ears like a radically different reading. All in all, though, McNeely proves himself the better conductor--at least, of this score, and versus a recording made by Herrmann in his last year.

Either of the above recordings is superior to Herrmann's two other versions of the Psycho music. His 14-minute concert suite, currently available on Music from the Great Movie Thrillers, is a fine performance but contains only highlights of the score. The 1996 Soundstage bootleg of the original film soundtrack is, interestingly, the least satisfying of all the available versions. Perfect as the performance is for the film, when heard by itself it rushes past at such a breakneck speed (only 46-1/2 minutes long, not 49 as stated on the CD cover) that the music has no room to breathe. Both Herrmann and McNeely, when not faced with the exigencies of film editing, wisely chose a more leisurely pace. Besides which, the bootleg's sound is predictably muddy and the cues are divided into seven suites instead of being individually accessible.

Mention should also be made of Kevin Mulhall's intelligent and insightful liner notes for McNeely's version of Psycho, which equal or surpass the essay written by Christopher Palmer for the 1975 Herrman recording. In addition, the CD booklet boasts production photos from the film and an atmospheric cover painting by Matthew Peak. Once again, Varese-Sarabande's dedication to quality and detail is everywhere in evidence.

Based on his handling of Psycho (not to mention the previously released Vertigo and Fahrenheit 451, two excellent discs), I look forward to what McNeely will do with Herrmann's seldom-heard Torn Curtain and the oft-recorded Citizen Kane. Of course, like every Herrmann fan, I'd like to see all of his scores released in their original versions. But even if that ever happens, efforts like McNeely's are valuable, both in their own right as creative reinterpretations, and in the ongoing effort to achieve acceptance of bona fide film music classics into the classical music canon.

A second review by Scott Minty is also available.

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