HERRMANN Moby Dick CADMAN Dark Dances of the Mardi Gras
As his centenary year draws to a close it is good to be reminded of the strength and quality of Herrmann’s non-film music. These two releases do him a great service. Melville’s Moby-Dick had been a boyhood favourite, possibly influenced by his father’s own experiences as a whaler. Having initially considered setting the novel as an opera, he eventually settled on a concert work. Following inspirational ‘site visits’ to Massachusetts with his librettist, William Clark Harrington, Herrmann composed the cantata between 1936 and 1938. It is a remarkably vivid piece, displaying the dramatic skills learnt in the composing atelier of a radio studio, and deserves to be much better known and more often performed.
The Barbirolli Society’s disc is of the first broadcast performance, made three days after the world premiere in Carnegie Hall. Herrmann revised the work in 1973, having previously made his own recording in 1967 for the Pye Virtuoso label with the LPO (later released on a 1993 Unicorn-Kanchana CD). Barbirolli’s Captain Ahab was the stentorian Robert Weede; his Ishmael (the narrator) the tenor William Hain, who is on beautiful form, especially in the pastel-coloured aria ‘It was a clear steel-blue day’. Barbirolli drives the drama along with an almost reckless glee. Another highlight is the ‘gallumphing’ drunken sailor’s ‘Oh! Jolly is the gale’. The excellent radio balance is occasionally compromised by some crumbling of the ancient ‘acetates’ signal. This 40-minute performance is full of pep and palpable excitement. The new Danish recording comes in at around 46 minutes, the same as Herrmann’s own recording. In surround sound it is simply stunning with vivid singing and playing, all of the highest order.
Each disc comes with an interesting filler. For Barbirolli, Charles Wakefield Cadman (1881-1946) is the piano soloist in his own Mardi Gras-inspired Dark Dances, a piece much in vogue in 1930s America, captured here from Carnegie Hall in a December 1937 broadcast. On Chandos the Danish National SO strings offer the premiere recording of the original version of Herrmann’s highly expressionist 1936 Sinfonietta, used later as the model for parts of Psycho. Both discs are thoroughly enjoyable and worthy of exploration.