AOM Logo July 2000

Tribute to Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Juarez; Elizabeth and Essex; The Sea Wolf

James Sedares conducting the New Zealand Symphony

KOCH 3-7302-SH1

David Aspinall

Record Cover

There have been few releases I have looked forward to as much as this one. Juarez has always seemed to me one of Korngold's supreme masterpieces. That it has not received till now an even representative recording is scandalous, so we must convey our thankfulness to Koch and Mr. Sedares up front.

That appreciation clear, I must now confess my mixed feelings about this disc. First, another word of praise: Sedares has done a terrific job of recreating the aura of the original soundtracks. In pacing, balances and general faithfulness to the feel of the Korngold performances, these performances are entirely satisfactory. Typical Korngoldian frissons are frequently experienced as Juarez and Sea Wolf unfold (for the first time) unmasked by sound effects and dialogue. The dynamic contrasts, far more marked and dramatic in Juarez than in most Korngold scores, are electrifyingly reproduced. The sound is very good, if not without digititis, and blessedly balanced so that we have the ideal combination of orchestral detail and atmosphere (this, by the way, is not always true in the Gerhardt performances, where the general sumptuousness sometimes obscured the marvelous orchestration). One break in the aural pleasure is the exposed, dissonant strings, which underline Carlota's incipient madness. Here the recording exposes also the asperity that is too often the norm of digital string sound.

My ambiguous feelings derive not primarily from the execution or recording, however. They derive from the selection of repertoire. I have no complaint respecting the giving over of twenty-seven minutes to The Sea Wolf, Korngold's most atypical score - leaving aside his concert works and operas. In its lacerating gestures, jagged edges and dark sonorities we hear an intuitive romantic grappling with the Nietzschean, Dionysian, demonic impulse epitomized by Jack London's anti-hero Wolf Larsen. Even the romance is muted by apocalyptic fatalism - the love theme is presented by a plaintive harmonica. There is no ecstasy, no triumph here. The dominant ethos is fear, represented by the omnipresent fog and prevalent grey moods of this early example of film noir.

No, my complaint is centred on the highly subjective sampling of cues from Juarez. Are the original scores in part missing? The original soundtrack comprised about forty cues, making up just over an hour of background score (about half the running time, quite conservative by Korngold standards!). We are offered here fewer than half those cues, twenty-seven plus minutes in total1. I am not suggesting that the best approach would have been to reproduce the cues as heard in the film (although in Joel McNeely's The Trouble With Harry this approach worked well). Many of Juarez' cues are extremely short and punctuational in context. But why are so many key sequences missing? One reason Juarez has not achieved the status of other Korngold scores might be that it contains a fair bit of non-original thematic material. I allude to La Paloma (a favourite of Maximilian and Carlota, and quite visible in this recording), and Haydn's Imperial Anthem (omitted completely here), along with the inspired variations on The Battle Hymn of the Republic (also absent), which accompany the great scene where Juarez receives news of Lincoln's assassination. Although Korngold did not normally enjoy his costume epic assignments as much as his fans tend to, Juarez was one subject he did warm to instinctively. In this (true) story of nobility sacrificed to political expediency, in its depiction of civilization's last glimpse of noblesse oblige, in the person of Korngold's fellow Austrian, Archduke Maximilian von Hapsburg - Korngold saw opportunity to reach the heights. For in this true-life Don Quixote, who has been called "the last knight of the 19th century", the disenfranchised composer could be proud in his birthstamp. In those dark days of 1939 after the Nazi annexation of his homeland (the Korngold family had its Vienna home and all their possessions confiscated; Korngold's eldest son, still at school there while dad composed Robin Hood in faraway Hollywood, escaped on the last train to Switzerland) - with civilization within sight of the ultimate sacrificial altar, World War II - Korngold and the whole world needed a hero. It was Lord Acton who gave us the cynical last word on absolutist politics, "Absolute power corrupts absolutely". But it was the same Lord who said of the Archduke Maximilian, "I think he was well-nigh the noblest of his race, and fulfilled the promise of his words, "The fame of my ancestors will not degenerate in me'". In treating the ambiguities of this great story (for which the film has often been criticized, as if Warners should have changed history) - the composer, for once, did not eschew the Hollywood cliché of inserting melodies with familiar associations: the Imperial hymn, juxtaposed with the Battle Hymn of the Republic, in these transcendent adaptations, were not signs that the composer's inspiration was flagging. His achievement in Juarez is not less for their inclusion. And the score, as represented in this recording, is quite out of balance without these elements.

Now to my greatest sorrow. The unforgettably poignant Ave Maria, underscoring Carlota's vain visit to a shrine to pray for a child - one of the most sheerly beautiful moments in all screen music - is not here. As this cue's sublime final rest fades, strings rising to the resigned final chord, we marvel at the simplicity with which Korngold could evoke the most complex - and profound - human emotions (another example is the final false suspension in the aforementioned Lincoln sequence). The shrine prayer is an almost unforgiveable omission. Nevertheless, while we're at the shrine, mercy must triumph over judgement.

Since the notes do not mention any problem with the original manuscripts, one must assume that either editorial subjectivism or time constraints are responsible for these (and other) significant omissions. It is hard to credit the time option, as we have the redundant inclusion of six minutes from Elizabeth and Essex. Why, with Gerhardt and Carl Davis' excellent recordings easily accessible? The "Tribute" concept seems half-hearted, when there is no Robin Hood, Sea Hawk, Kings Row [Other than "Between Two Worlds", Korngold's greatest score - Ed] etc. More serious still, the total running time is just over an hour. No, I am mystified as to why we could not easily have squeezed at least twenty more minutes of Juarez onto this disc without sacrificing any of The Sea Wolf. Now that we have a recording of the score, I fear we may not likely see another attempt for a long time (as, unfortunately, has already proved to be the case with Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk, the latter still needing a definitive complete recording). I also fear that the greatness of Korngold's achievement in Juarez, if judged merely on this recording, may be unfairly diminished. Please explain the omissions - someone. The climactic sequences, happily, are intact. And while we listen rapt as the Juarez suite reaches the Emperor's execution, and his first "meeting" with Benito Juarez, who has approached the funeral casket to ask forgiveness - one of filmmusic's supreme catharses - we can summon enough of Maximilian's magnanimity to forgive all else2.

1. By the way, the booklet's timings of the climactic March Funebre and Church Bells disagree significantly with my CD timer.

2. As a window into a more gracious time, indulge me while I quote Maximilian's final letter to his archfoe, the humble peon, now President, with whom he struggled over the destiny of Mexico (Empire or Republic?): "Señor Benito Juarez, On the point of being executed, as the consequence of having been desirous to prove if new political institutions would have the effect of terminating the sanguinary civil war which has devastated this unfortunate country for many years past, I shall deliver up my life with pleasure if its sacrifice can contribute to the peace and prosperity of my adopted country. Fully persuaded that nothing solid can be founded in a territory drenched with blood and agitated by violent commotions, I conjure you, in the most solemn manner and with the sincerity becoming these moments, that my blood may be the last that is shed, and that the same perseverance (which it has been my pleasure to acknowledge and respect in the midst of prosperity) with which you have defended the cause that has just triumphed may be consecrated to the most noble task of reconciling minds, and establishing in a stable and durable manner the peace and tranquility of this unfortunate country! Maximilian."

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