Re-recording classic scores

Twenty-five years ago, movie music became respectable when RCA launched its “Classic Film Scores” series with an album devoted to the ’30s and ’40s music of forgotten master Erich Wolfgang Korngold (“The Adventures of Robin Hood” and “The Sea Hawk”).

Now those LPs are themselves classics, and the re-recording of the great film music of the past is big business. Practically every week, another label is releasing previously unavailable scores by such composers as Max Steiner, Alfred Newman, Miklos Rozsa and Franz Waxman.

And many of them are classical labels. Nonesuch, which made a worldwide hit of Gorecki’s Third Symphony, has just released four albums of classic film music by Alex North, Leonard Rosenman, Georges Delerue and Toru Takemitsu.

Koch International had already jumped into the fray, recording music by Newman, Rozsa, Victor Young, Jerome Moross and Elmer Bernstein. The London-based Marco Polo label began in 1990 recording forgotten film works by such well-known concert composers as Arthur Honegger and Ralph Vaughan Williams, but has now expanded to include Steiner, Korngold, Hugo Friedhofer and Hans Salter.

In the meantime, labels that are more familiar to film-music fans are continuing their own series of re-recordings. Varese Sarabande, Silva Screen, Intrada and others are now so active in the field that some execs are reluctant to discuss future plans, worried that another label will beat them to this old score or that.

“The record companies have come to the conclusion that at the end of this century, there isn’t much good classical music to record,” says John W. Waxman, son of film composer Franz Waxman (“Sunset Boulevard”) and owner of Themes & Variations, which supplies many film scores to orchestras for recording and live performance. “With the death of music of the mid-century, both in terms of the public (interest) and the records that didn’t sell, they simply turned to film music to fill that void.”

“The classical market is starting to see legitimacy in film music,” agrees Film Score Monthly editor Lukas Kendall, although he cautions against too much optimism. “I don’t think these labels have struck gold. Film music won’t suddenly outsell Beethoven.”

Marketing is the big challenge for most of this music. James Fitzpatrick, director of the London-based Silva Screen label, saw his “Cinema Choral Classics” album break into Billboard’s classical crossover chart twice this year and expects that it will sell 50,000 units worldwide. But that’s a collection of beautiful choral movie themes, not the kind of material sought by the 3,000 or so hardcore film-music fans.

“We now very seldom make albums for the so-called collectors’ market,” Fitzpatrick says. Collectors often want long suites, obscure scores and great music by forgotten composers, and commercial viability means that albums must have far broader appeal, whether it’s the umpteenth re-recording of “Gone with the Wind” or another version of “Jaws.”

Nonesuch president Robert Hurwitz undertook his lavish new film series based on the power of the music in the films he loved, notably “East of Eden” where Leonard Rosenman’s score “was so important that it was almost operatic in terms of how it pushed along the film.”

Hurwitz, too, believes that films became a haven for composers who were interested in writing tonal music at a time when the concert halls were filled with “angry music, music that was very hard for even sophisticated listeners to understand.” Hence his appreciation for the “glorious” melodies of Delerue for the films of Francois Truffaut. He hopes that the Rosenman and Delerue discs will reach worldwide sales of 100,000 apiece.

For producer Robert Townson of leading soundtrack label Varese Sarabande, it’s more about the music. Varese has embarked on an ambitious program of re-recording complete scores, with Bernstein’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Jerry Goldsmith’s “Patton” (each conducted by their composer) among the first batch. (Herrmann’s unused “Torn Curtain” and Goldsmith’s expanded “The Sand Pebbles” are among those scheduled for release next year.)

With re-recordings, Townson points out, “you gain all the benefits of a new performance and new recording technology that allows things within the orchestration, that are lost and buried in an old recording, to really shine through.” Even Herrmann’s “Psycho” (newly conducted by Joel McNeely) merits revisiting, he says, in an effort to achieve a “definitive” result.

In many cases, however, re-recording classic film music is not easy. Long before anyone realized that film history demanded archiving key elements of the filmmaking process, many scores were simply thrown away. So reconstructing and reorchestrating film music for new recordings has become something of a cottage industry.

John W. Morgan and William Stromberg are two of the most active, recording four new film-music albums a year for Marco Polo. Morgan does most of the reconstruction, Stromberg all of the conducting (currently, in Moscow, where Marco Polo records many of its classical albums). Their latest is the first complete recording of Max Steiner’s classic score for 1933’s “King Kong.”

Working from Steiner’s original sketches, Morgan reorchestrated the entire score thing to the composer’s specifications (which could not be fully achieved with the 45-member RKO orchestra Steiner was forced to use). At more than 70 minutes, “it’s every note Steiner wrote,” he says, including two cues not used in the film.

If the composer’s handwritten original or the studio’s fully orchestrated scores are unavailable, reconstructing a score can take months and must often be based on careful listening to the film’s soundtrack itself and a review of the sparsely notated conductor part (often saved by studios for future reference but far from complete). In addition, changes are often made during the recording that can substantially alter the music.

For producer David Schecter, whose Monstrous Movie Music label tackles great scores from mostly bad ’50s horror and sci-fi films, achieving the unique sound of the original music was vitally important. His wife Kathleen Mayne painstakingly reconstructed such scores as “Them!” and “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,” which they recorded in Poland with a closely miked, no-reverb approach.

“There is a growing audience for classic film music,” says Richard Kaufman, who has conducted six of these albums (for Koch, Marco Polo and Varese). “It’s no longer for the purists and the collectors. Now people can hear this music unencumbered, recorded digitally, in the best possible sound and in performance by great orchestras.”

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