Bernard Herrmann on Chandos

4 of 5 stars

Bernard Herrmann
Suite from Wuthering Heights [arr. Hans Sørensen]
Echoes for Strings

Keri Fuge (soprano – Cathy)
Roderick Williams (baritone – Heathcliff)

 Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Mario Venzago
Joshua Tan

 Recorded at Esplanade Concert Hall, Singapore in May 2022

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: June 2023
Duration: 81 minutes



Was Bernard Herrmann a truly great composer? When in 2010 Gramophone magazine staged a debate on the matter with John Amis, Rumon Gamba and Adrian Edwards, Amis was unambiguous – ‘I don’t think it’s great music, but it’s entertaining’ – not necessarily a verdict that makes much sense. Genius or not, Herrmann never set out to please. An accidental movie composer, he lacked not only the affability of younger colleagues (tellingly André Previn was derided as ‘that jazz boy’) but also the stylistic dexterity and pragmatism expected of so-called ‘background’ music. Like Copland and Vaughan Williams when writing for the cinema, Herrmann had no truck with Broadway tropes, Viennese nostalgia or (later) Sixties pop. Instead he fashioned scores from nagging, gnomic ideas, obsessive ostinatos and low-register glowering, his progressions often rising and falling without resolution to create a very particular brand of suspense. His magnum opus, the opera Wuthering Heights (completed in 1951 after eight years of work), is framed by music reminiscent of both Citizen Kane and the minatory percussive strokes that would one day launch Taxi Driver, attesting to Herrmann’s stubborn stylistic constituency throughout a checkered career. Significantly synchronous Hollywood assignments included Jane Eyre (1944) and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947).

A radical in the studio, Herrmann’s concert music has often been described as ‘unfashionably romantic’ – that implication is in the notes here too – yet Wuthering Heights has little truck with big tunes, the moors evoked rather as first cousin to Holst’s Egdon Heath albeit on a positively Wagnerian scale. Edward Greenfield noted ‘echoes of Delius, of Warlock (particularly of The Curlew), even of Holst’s Savitri.’ If Puccini is present it is as the progressive of La fanciulla del West. The opera’s neglect may have had less to do with the supposed obsolescence of its idiom than with Herrmann’s refusal to compromise, to soften the ending or countenance cuts to a very long score in which atmosphere is prioritized over incident. A certain four-square quality, shared with the likes of Miaskovsky, is exaggerated here by the faithfulness of the text extracted (by Lucille Fletcher, the first of Herrmann’s three wives) chiefly from the first part of Emily Brontë’s novel and the generally syllabic way it is set. Having acquired a local rival in Carlisle Floyd’s shorter music drama on the same subject (1958), Herrmann financed a recording of his own score in England in 1966 (for Pye, later reissued on Unicorn-Kanchana). His opera has since been posthumously staged in Portland (1982), Minnesota (2011) and Braunschweig (2015), while a 2010 concert version from Montpellier under Alain Altinoglu is available on the Accord label. The cantankerous composer would have vetoed most of these undertakings as insufficiently respectful of his original concept.

Hans Sørensen’s radical solution is to focus even more closely on the main protagonists in an hour’s worth of material representing not quite a third of the whole. You might recognise ‘I have been wandering through the green woods’.  The one bit of the opera to have made discernible progress into the mainstream, it features on recital discs by Renée Fleming and Kate Royal. Katharine Fuge readily pulls at the heartstrings with her brighter, less sumptuous instrument. Judging from Morag Beaston in 1966 (before she sang her first Turandot) this is the penetrating voice type Herrmann preferred for the role. Heathcliff is incarnated by the lyric baritone Roderick Williams, very much not the Wagnerian sort favoured elsewhere, his lovely tenor-ish colours balanced these days by some furrier wobble in the lower register. Is there another singer with such superlative diction? Probably not but he does sound a bit old for Cathy. The quietly ecstatic parts of the opera are best served, the melodramatic element under-represented and less compelling when it is. Is that, as listeners may assume, entirely Herrmann’s fault? Alain Altinoglu and his cast offer something altogether less subtle throughout, delivered mostly in Franco-Belgian varieties of English. Herrmann’s own vintage set admits some Archers-style rural accents. Presumably by design, Chandos’s ‘suite’ stands at greater remove from the drama. The production team apply sonic distancing to the incorporeal Cathy but there is no wind machine in the closing stages. The surround sound is as clean and faithful as the chaste, often very beautiful playing of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra for Mario Venzago. 

The coupling fleshes out the string quartet, Echoes (1965), nowadays readily accessible in rival recordings. Attitudes to this kind of full string band projection of intimate, elegiac fare will vary. The effect here is to bring us closer to the Hitchcock scores, though to cite MarnieVertigo and Psycho as the ‘sources’ of Herrmann’s inspiration rather than evidence of a common motivic gene pool would doubtless have enraged the composer. With Joshua Tan taking over conducting duties, the sense of intimate dialoguing is not wholly lost.

In short, this is a fascinating project, not easy to assess but certainly one to revisit. Accessible as it is in some respects, this is music reluctant to reveal its innermost secrets. Amis was notably scathing about the opera: ‘I think there are a lot of film gestures and atmospheric gestures in it but I do think it’s the most boring piece … it’s a bit like eating polystyrene and there’s such a lack of melody. Although there’s one good song in it, the rest is really rather feeble.’ Is this fair?  Over to you…

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