AOM Logo April 1999

Franz Waxman: Humoresque

London Symphony
Andrew Litton, cond.

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, violin
Judy Blazer, vocals
Leslie Stifelman, piano

Nonesuch 79464-2

David Aspinall

Cover Image

Humoresque was Waxman's seventh Oscar nomination. This 1947 soap opera is one of the dizziest peaks of '40s melodrama and for Waxman it was an atypical assignment. Unlike Steiner (at RKO), Stothart (at MGM) or Newman (at Fox), Waxman was not normally found adapting other composers' works. Humoresque, however, would have taken a ton of creative self-absorption to resist. This tale of a selfish society dame and an ambitious violinist tapped every facet of Waxman's background - from his German jazz club days, through the extremes of his conservatory acquirements and acquaintances, from Weill to Wagner by way of Broadway and Bizet.

When I first heard of this release last summer, it seemed an eccentric choice for resurrection. First, the repertoire is a hodgepodge. A single, eclectic excerpt represents Waxman's background score. Broadway, the background for the main story (Jewish violin prodigy meets shrewish society patroness, with Oscar Levant for comedy relief), supplies a few standards. Bits of stage performances appear and disappear with typical '40s montage rapidity. The show stoppers, and presumably the real reason for this release, are the Waxman adaptations of Bizet's Carmen and the now-mythic grande (dame) finale, Joan Crawford's walk into the ocean, accompanied by the Wagner/Waxman Liebestod, adapted for violin, piano and full orchestra. No description can possibly do justice to this climax, and Wagner was the perfect choice for the loopily illogical lushness of it all. Waxman's treatment is suitably over the top (no small feat with Tristan), but expert withal. Waxman's adaptation of the Bizet has become something of a high water mark (no pun intended) for the virtuoso. Heifetz recorded it with Waxman, but Isaac Stern did the soundtrack (and also gave a gripping performance as John Garfield's left arm in the close ups).

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg

Which brings us to the real raison d'être of this CD - Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. The lady sure can play. It seems the old cliché is relevant: she literally makes the violin talk. But this is decidedly a mixed blessing when it talks like this. I've seen the film, I suppose, three or four times. Never did Stern give the impression of precocious preening, precious exaggeration and general self-absorption that I hear almost every time Ms. S-S happens upon a slow passage. It's as if a red bulb flashing emote can be seen hovering between the speakers. Whether it is Gershwin or Dvorak, we get the distinct impression that we're listening to Nadja, not the composer. A parallel that quickly came to mind, for this jaded listener, was the narcissism of the Streisand, Ross and Dion school of vocalism. Technique to burn, lung power, too. But when the music is as good as it was then (that is, Porter, Gershwin, etc.), do we really want to be conscious of the interpreter? Even Ella and Sarah, who would hardly bow to the aforementioned trio, knew when to let the melody alone.

Therefore, I cannot wholeheartedly recommend this CD. Despite Nadja's obvious dedication - she confesses to a lifelong obsession with the film - one has the niggling suspicion that her passion for Humoresque may have more to do with sympathy for its moral theme than its musical themes. For both the Crawford and Garfield characters have an impossible problem, in that they are both the centre of their respective universes, and in no universe I've heard of can there be two foci. Has our young virtuoso of today evolved beyond such cosmic considerations?

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