Rob Price
Gutbrain Records
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2012 February 15 • Wednesday

Bernard Herrmann's mastery of orchestral color is so crucial to his music that a record of solo piano versions of his compositions doesn't seem like a good idea. Pianist Stéphan Oliva has made two such records and I like them quite a bit.

The first one, Ghosts of Bernard Herrmann, begins with the lovel "Nocturne" and "Andante Cantabile" from The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Olvia's interpretation is sensitive and creates just the right atmosphere.

The theme from Journey to the Center of the Earth is less successful. This is music that needs a huge sound. It was also composed for certain tonalities, basically all brass, percussion and organ. Oliva deserves credit for trying but I this is an experiment that doesn't quite work.

"Radar" and "Space Control" from The Day the Earth Stood Still work much better on the piano. Oh, you might miss the theremin and other electronic instruments from the original recording, but this is the kind of ethereal piece that works well in translation.

"Prelude" from Obsession is nice but not especially memorable. I'm not that familiar with this score, so that might be part of the reason it doesn't do much for me.

Then of course there's "Vertigo", thirteen-minute solo piano interpretation of themes from the movie of the same name. There's no denying that I miss the orchestra in places here, but the lyricism and beauty of Herrmann's compositions are so strong that the piano version is a success.

"The Birthday" from Sisters surprises with Oliva's use of Fender Rhodes, sounding hear more like a celeste or a child's xylophone. It's not one of my favorite pieces but it's a very good performance.

Music from Psycho is next and will surprise anybody expecting to hear screeching strings. It begins in a melancholy, romantic mood, proceeds to the tense driving music and ends up eventually at the famous murder scene, gamely attempted by Oliva on the piano keyboard. Like the music from Journey to the Center of the Earth, this piece feels somewhat bereft on the piano but, like all the tracks on this CD, the excellence of the source and Oliva's musicality make it worthwhile.

"Prelude/The Road/The Bedroom" are from Fahrenheit 451 and work well on solo piano though I find them less exciting than the most of the others.

"Memory Waltz" from The Snows of Kilimanjaro is one of Herrmann's most celebrated compositions and it succeeds brilliantly in Oliva's piano arrangement.

The last two tracks represent Herrmann's first and last film scores: "Overture/Xanadu" from Citizen Kane and "All the Animals Come Out at Night" fromTaxi Driver. The former finds Oliva successfully capturing the somewhat menacing atmosphere of the original with the piano's low notes and, I think, using the inside of the piano as well.

"All the Animals Come Out at Night" has Oliva playing the famous Taxi Driver theme with his right hand while creating ominous, low-pitched sonic clouds with his left hand. It's very good.

In the liner notes Oliva has written, "I never try to play his music in totally faithful fashion, and am perfetly willing to make allowances for subjective alterations that may arise through tricks of memory, improvisation or the transposition of orchestral work over to piano". His instincts are the right ones.