Doing it right: Gerhardt, Korngold, and RCA

April 4, 2011 | By

It’s quite possible many households during the seventies had at least one of Charles Gerhardt’s classical recordings done by RCA for Reader’s Digest. When I was a brat, my mother used to babysit in the apartment where I initially grew up, and even after we moved to Cuesta Verde– I mean, North York, she maintained ties with a few of the old apartment friends, and babysat one monster child named Richard.

The kid was a smash & grab creature who twice – twice – fiddled with the knobs and handles in his mother’s VW bug and crashed the car into our garage door. He also yanked a large stuffed fish pillow from under my head and made my cranium strike the concrete floor.

The bastard was a classic terror child – when my mother and I dropped by his mum’s apartment to slide a letter through the door slot, I peeked under the door and saw nothing but littered busted toys all across the carpet – but his mother worked for RCA, and the trade-offs for bruised brains and crunched garages were free portable radios, free kid’s albums (like the RCA Camden Dr. Seuss LPs), and the odd classical title – or so it seemed.

It wasn’t until maybe my early teens that I pulled our Gerhardt’s re-recording of Max Steiner’s Gone with the Wind, and while I wasn’t blown away with the music, the very existence of film music on a record seemed unique. It wasn’t until a few years later that I made the connection between the Tony Thomas-produced Max Steiner LPs I was buying at Sam Record Man with the GWTW LP, and realized the RCA album was part of a series released by the label during the seventies, and were largely still in print.

I’ve written before what a bitch it was to get a label’s full roster in Canada – we just didn’t get more than half the titles of any label’s series because of import issues, or the distributor not giving a damn – so I only learned of other volumes based on what was listed in the liner notes or album sleeves, and it never seemed to end.

You bought one LP, and Bang! there were Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn albums. Some I never managed to find because they didn’t get reissued, but both the Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Waxman and Max Steiner albums remained available in Canada.

The history of these Classic Film albums is somewhat simple in that they were a natural offshoot of the RCA-Reader’s Digest classic sets and individual releases, but what made them unique for the time was the extreme care Gerhardt and co-producer George (son of Erich Wolfgang) Korngold extended to the music.

As ‘Gene Tyranny’ writes in All Music, he approached the composers and worked out what music to focus on, and how to arrange it. Then had themes and dramatic cuts fleshed out into flowing  suites and extracts that not only captured the classic sound of Golden and Silver Age composers, but emphasized their brilliance as masters of orchestral writing.

It is fair to say at this point that Gerhardt probably encountered elitism among critics, fellow producers, and even snooty concert composers who felt anything film-related was rubbish. Not serious, not relevant, and a waste of time. The albums were like best-of hit collections for the idiot masses, to be spun like Mantovani and anesthetized listeners in place of intellectual or emotional provocation.

I started it all!

Gerhardt’s decision to engage in a series of LPs was daring for the time, because prior to the first release – The Sea Hawk: The Film Music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold – few film composers treated themselves to suites & themes albums.

Alfred Newman did a few for Decca, as did Max Steiner for RCA, Victor Young for Decca, Dimitri Tiomkin for Coral, Elmer Bernstein for Decca and in the sixties for Ava Records, but they were all either rare suites / one-off albums done during the fifties, or hit themes dumbed-down for the easy listening crowd.

You can’t say the composers were to blame, even when they produced the LPs or arranged the music for easy to swallow spoon-sizes. The fifties were not that friendly to film score LPs, and the increased push to have a hit theme song in a film decided not only what music was released, but how.

Newman’s Anastasia did get an LP release, but so did Pat Boone’s single version. Tiomkin’s Dial M for Murder only appeared as part of a theme collection of ‘romantic’ and moody themes rather than re-recorded score cuts.

Young re-recorded small suites of themes for Decca’s 10″ LPs, but perhaps the first move to re-record a chunk of a score for a single album came from Warner Bros. Records., where in-house music director Ray Heindorf (re-billed simply as “Heindorf”) supervised the productions of Young’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and Miklos Rozsa’s Spellbound in 1958, under the label’s new hi-fi sound imprint, Vitaphonic Stereo.

Both WB re-recordings were slowly paced, schmaltzy, and lacked the fury endemic to the original screen recordings (or the composers’ own suite recordings from the forties).

Themes-from-and-inspired-by albums didn’t yet exist, but wishy-washy-themes-from-plus-these-other-great-hits were popping up on the horizon, mostly in re-recorded collections suited for every taste and loungy, leisure room persuasion. Most of those collections littered the used LP bins for years, and none of the ones I sampled were ever any good. They cluttered used shops for a reason.

Gerhardt’s approach included fidelity to the composer’s vision (or pretty damn close to), the music’s dramatic impact (or least evocative of its impact when experienced with sound and picture), and as a representation of the composer’s best creative work. The music was also performed and recorded and engineered like fine classical music, and the albums had a wonderful flow – either mimicking a concert, or a rousing musical experience that, like a Shostakovich symphony, was meant to blast from your high-end hi-fi system.

The albums were so well engineered that they were released in stereo, in Quadraphonic sound, and later on CD in Dolby Surround when that process was in vogue during the eighties and early nineties.

From a purist’s stand, the morphing sound designs might have been annoying, but the multiple releases did illustrate the instincts of Gerhardt and fellow series producer Korngold: if you make the album with sincere professionalism, it will have legs.

It’s not wrong to assume the Gerhardt-Korngold high standard influenced other producers to exceed expectations in other music idioms when crafting their own albums. (One can see similarities with Elmer Bernstein’s Film Music Collection, which the composer set up in the seventies to record and release suites and single score albums of neglected music by marginalized composers.)

Not unlike RCA’s Living Stereo series of the fifties, the Gerhardt albums remain superb recordings deserving of praise for their engineering and the producers’ innate good taste that pretty much ensured the music reflected the peak quality of the era in which it was composed, rather than the polar extreme – UA’s series of wretched re-recordings produced by Leroy Holmes that turned stirring music into echoey, slowed-down ugliness typical of bad seventies orchestrating, and bad recording techniques. (Even Decca tree albums sounded better.)

The fact the masters still sound good is also a tribute to the RCA crew who took care of them and ensured the multi-track elements could be flexed into Quad, Dolby 4.0, or punchy 2.0 Stereo.

The Classic Film Score series also seemed to motivate Tony Thomas into believing he too could ride on the Gerhardt wave and release LPs of original archival score material in smaller runs, mining unreleased acetate material from the Max Steiner Society, or utterly forgotten music by Hans J. Salter, Miklos Rozsa, and even Alfred Newman – notably the latter’s Captain from Castile, which Gerhardt re-recorded a few stellar theme selections, too.

Each competing effort fed off the other, and even if one could credit John Williams’ Star Wars for rekindling an interest in large orchestral scores with classical designs, the interest in going back to old, ignored catalogues seemed to begin when Gerhardt released that first Korngold LP which became a best-seller.

Yes, it was Korngold, not Newman or Hugo Friedhofer, but it got the ball rolling.

So while the other major labels were keen on putting out other Williams-y scores, indie labels sprouted up and took advantage of some classic music languishing in studio vaults. Varese Sarabande raided the Decca archives, and sometimes did their own restoration of newly found masters (Island in the Sky, Themes from Horror Movies), acetates, or previously unreleased material.

Varese probably would’ve sprouted on its own, but RCA’s ongoing and in-print series sure helped.

That brings me to the actual RCA run, which gets complicated because the LPs were released individually, in a boxed set with additional music, reissued on LP in their original shorter running times, reissued on CD in the same manner, reissued in Germany with more music, reissued in Dolby Surround, and now we’ve come back again with the entire RCA run of the original album releases back in action in CD and MP3 formats.

The best catalogue and dissection of the series was done in 1998 (!) by R. Mike Murray for Film Score Monthly Daily. This link has probably gotten more hits in the last six months than in 1998, and bless FSM for keeping it active online.

Murray gives an overview of the series, breaks down what music was & wasn’t on which release, and he tries not to make your head hurt.

The new run from RCA on their Red Seal imprint features new masterings, which do sound different from the Surround Sound versions from the late eighties, but that makes sense because upwards of 11 years have yielded a few major technological advancements, as well as re-appraisals of how to apply digital gear.

When Tony Thomas released Newman’s Captain from Castile on his Delos LP label, the original source was the set of Mercury 78s, albeit processed a bit with then-novel sound enhancement gear. That approach also extended to the Facets CD, and it was also applied in the eighties when Thomas released an Alfred Newman compilation for the Varese CD Club series, featuring Castile extracts from an older Mercury release, heavily reprocessed into a stereophonic, boom-friendly sound design. Prior to the Screen Archives complete score release, I had to reach back to the Mercury LP of the fifties to get the cleaner true mono recording.

Silly, isn’t it?

It just illustrates how a new sound enhancing toy is sometimes overused to ‘open up’ older recordings because few understand the new toy’s far-reaching effects years later. Ergo, producers always learn less is sometimes more and where a specific toy works best, and nowhere else. What’s remarkable is how Gerhardt and Korngold got it right so many times 30+ years ago.

So, without further editorial blather, I’ve uploaded the first four reviews of the remastered Gerhardt-Korngold Classic Film Score series lot, starting with the David Raksin [M], Franz Waxman [M], Alfred Newman [M], and Dimitri Tiomkin [M] albums.

For those whose first exposure to any of the represented composers starts with this re-launched series, dig into Gerhardt series, and if you like the wares of any composer, go nuts.

Seriously. There’s so much music out there now in complete form, and you owe it to yourself to look back if your listening habits are saturated with the same stuff released in the last 10 years. Of course you won’t like all of it, but you will find someone whose music will impress, and your tastes will suddenly begin to broaden, branching to classic film music, classical music, period hits, and new re-recordings and idiomatic versions. Things always expand from a hungry interest.

Seriously. It’s all good.



Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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