Paul Paray Joan of Arc Mass / Symphony No.1

James Paul / Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Chorus / Soloists: Lorna Haywood, Terry Patrick-Harris, Joseph Harris, Jozik Koc

Reference Recordings RR-78CD

Record Cover For those who would wish to explore the remote byways of 20th century French repertoire may I recommend the new Reference Recordings release of the above works by the French conductor/composer Paul Paray (1886-1979).

Paray is best remembered for his tenure at the helm of the Detroit Symphony during the heyday of Mercury records (1952-63), to which he contributed some classic recordings, especially in the modern French repertoire. Though he lived (and conducted) to a venerable 93, Paray did not have the satisfaction of seeing his compositions taken up by other conductors during his lifetime. Though his Mass has been treasured -- and coveted -- by audiophiliacs since its original early stereo appearance, the symphony has never seen the light of day on CD and only once showed up on vinyl (in a live transfer on the hard to find Carthagene label).

Therefore Reference Recordings and conductor James Paul are to be thanked for the appearance of these most approachable works. The Mass should have immediate appeal to those who cherish Faure's Requiem -- especially Paray's Gloria, the longest movement at over thirteen minutes. Paul's performance is obviously a labour of love (he vowed to one day conduct it after a first cathartic exposure to the work in boyhood.) Orchestra and chorus are admirable, the recording lush yet spacious. But whereas the male soloists have a directness and nobility that disarm criticism, both their female counterparts have a rather wide vibrato which transported this listener from cathedral to conservatory.

The symphony dates from 1934, three years after the Joan of Arc (Paray wrote all his works before age 60.) It is well orchestrated and pleasantly diverting, which might well be said of much post-Ravel French music. But as might also be said of much of that same genre, this work may lack the directness of utterance, the distinction of melodic character that will bring back the listener frequently. Here the 24-bit recording brings out the subtlety of Paray's orchestration, but fails to tame the typically distressing digital brass, spoiling several climaxes. All in all, though, this CD is a worthwhile investment if your taste leans to 20th century musical exotica.


Wuthering Heights A Tribute to Alfred Newman

Film Scores: Wuthering Heights; Prince of Foxes; David & Bathsheba; Dragonwyck; The Prisoner of Zenda; Brigham Young.

Richard Kaufman, New Zealand Symphony

Koch International Classics 7376

Record Cover I greeted this CD with much apprehension: a feel for Newman does not come readily to most conductors. Charles Gerhardt and his RCA Classic Film Scores did right by Steiner, Korngold, Herrmann and Waxman -- but came a cropper with Newman! The latter tilts precariously close to the edge of vulgarity in some of his most characteristic work; but Gerhardt went right over the edge of excess with miscalculated adaptations of The Robe and Captain from Castile. John Mauceri, in his admirable documentary on Hollywood' s golden age of film music, pointed out how over-the-top, sentimental --old fashioned -- Newman can sound to the uninitiated. What inevitably redeems even the least inspired Newman score is the treatment -- Newman the conductor could transfigure even the banal into a transfixing ride.

But would conductor Kaufman approximate Newman's sound? I wasn't holding my breath that Kaufman and his capable New Zealand orchestra could match the virtuosity of Newman's Hollywood crew of the '40s. Therefore this CD is an exhilarating surprise. These performances are about as good an approximation of the Newman sound as we can reasonably expect from a '90s orchestra. The suites and excerpts from Dragonwyck, The Prisoner of Zenda and David and Bathsheba are uncompromising in their fidelity to the originals. Dragonwyck has never before been recorded. The high voltage main title is included, and the love music gracefully anticipates Newman's 1959 masterwork, The Diary of Anne Frank. The only disappointment is the march from Brigham Young, which, though well played, is pure and perfunctory Hollywood rustic.

Main fare, however, are the substantial suites from Wuthering Heights (1939) and Prince of Foxes (1949). The former is welcome on CD, but not really essential to the collector, for Elmer Bernstein and the Royal Philharmonic did a creditable reading of most of the score's highlights for his defunct Film Music Collection in the '70s. Kaufman renders the excerpts understandingly, and the recording gives more (moor?) aural ambience to the Bronte gloom, but the gentler segments benefitted by the intimacy of the Bernstein soundstage. Still Kaufman captures all the tender permutations of the wondrous Cathy theme with Newmanesque flair.

To the record industry's utter shame, Prince of Foxes has never before appeared on disc in any format. Yet as an introduction to the art of Alfred Newman this score gives no ground to that other Newman/Samuel Shellabarger collaboration, the much-recorded Captain from Castile. The main title has the propulsion and swagger of the Korngold swashbucklers; the renaissance backgrounds for this tale of Borgia intrigues are artful and intriguingly scored, if not exactly accurate. Kaufman does fine by these sequences, even if, inevitably, his players lack the breathtaking abandon of the great 20th Century Fox orchestra, which responded with such crackwhip precision to Newman's familiar baton. In particular, the garden scene is taken too slow -- more like a retirement social than a renaissance fest.

However, any treatment of Foxes will stand or stumble by its handling of the transcendent Camilla theme and the noble meditation for her husband Varsano. The lovely Cathy theme has found a life of its own apart from the original soundtrack, but these two themes from Foxes are equally exalted: Cathy, somehow redolent of both passion and agony, contrasts markedly with the serene Camilla, which never lights on solid earth. This ethereal theme's impact is augmented by rising key shifts. [Those acquainted with the Iberia of Albeniz will recognize familiar cadences.] Later, when all Camilla's beauties have seemingly been explored and exhausted, and while on screen cynical Andrea Orsini (Tyrone Power) softens before the warmth of a selfless example, Newman suggests Andrea's transformation with a rapturous new variation on the Camilla theme, divisi strings sublimely limning the complexity of Andrea's emotions. Truly one of the screen's great unknown moments! Regrettably, Varsano's lordly theme, of immeasurable dignity, is heard only in a fleeting bridge passage.

It would be ungrateful, having rhapsodized after this manner, to begrudge the LP playing time of this CD. Perhaps the expense of new arrangements or crucial rehearsal time for this unfamiliar music make normal expectations of playing time per penny unrealistic for this type of project. It occurred to me to write producer Tony Thomas, with due gratitude, inquiring whether we might expect more of Foxes, David and Bathsheba or other unheard Newman, such as Keys of the Kingdom, A Man Called Peter or a complete Anne Frank. Alas! I barely had time to bask in the hope when Elwy Yost announced Tony's death at the end of a recent Saturday Night at the Movies. Tony's informed and elegantly stated opinions have made a vast contribution to the Hollywood interview segment of that TVO program over two decades. This "Tribute to Alfred Newman" is one of many monuments to the indefatiguable efforts of Tony Thomas on behalf of Hollywood's long-neglected music masters.

-- David Aspinall