Wednesday, October 22, 2008

North By Northwest: The Complete Score

For the last week I've been marvelling over the 2007 recording of the immortal music score for Alfred Hitchcock's North By Northwest (1959) composed by Bernard Herrmann. To film score buffs, Herrmann's North By Northwest is considered one of the greatest film scores ever and Herrmann himself (1911-1975)--the composer of Citizen Kane, Psycho and Taxi Driver; among others-- is revered as a deity in film score circles. Now available on the Varese Sarabande label, producer Robert Townson and conductor Joel McNeely have produced an outstanding, complete version of this seminal musical achievment. I'm going to forego a synopsis of the movie and assume anyone reading this is at least somewhat familiar with this movie. That said, I will explain why a re-record of a truly brilliant score has wooed and wowed me. But first, here's a brief rundown of North By Northwest's soundtrack history and a little about rerecorded film scores.

The original North By Northwest session tapes were either lost or damaged years ago. According to the new recording's liner notes, the majority of the MGM library's tapes were discarded and buried under what is now Interstate 405 in California(!). The surviving tracks (also called "cues") were released on an incomplete original soundtrack in 1995 and despite valiant efforts to remaster and perserve those original tracks, much of the score has less than amazing sound quality. In fact on the Overture (the Spanish-sounding main title/action theme often referred to as the "fandango"), some instruments are no longer heard in the recording mix due to the decomposition of the tracks. Unfortunately, many of the elements containing the title track were among those damaged, so if you wanted to hear the riveting title cut, it would have been without the entire orchestra. I should say that the original is still worth hearing if only because original soundtracks-- whatever their condition-- are worth hearing and are often considered another character in the film and is worthy of purchase. Another thing that an original recording has over its newer counterpart is its relationship with the film. Because of that association, rerecorded film scores often lose the "feel" of the original soundtrack and since movie fans have every aspect of their favorite movies memorized, a new recording doesn't sound like the score as recorded for the film. Many times the concert hall recording sounds like a classical music performance and a variety of factors affect its sound: Altered tempos, different instrumental voicings, the orchestra's volume, just about *anything* can be a detriment to a rerecording.

Quite simply, the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra has avoided the perils of rerecording a cherished film score. They nail the feel, the spirit, the mood, the ferocious energy, the romance, the light humor, the very essence of the Bernard Herrmann sound. The orchestra avoids being overly reverential, or getting bogged down in slow, murky tempos or blowing through the slower pieces. North By Northwest is an action/adventure movie and the score reflects that in tracks like "The Wild Ride" and "The Crash"; the tension-filled "The U.N." and "The Highway"; and the romantic "Conversation Piece" and "Interlude." This new edition includes expanded versions of cues not heard in the film and four that receive their world premiere. Not only is North By Northwest a great accompaniment to a wonderful movie, this new album also proves to be a fantastic listening experience. Tracks are often thirty seconds to a minute and a half long with some cuts going longer, but everything segues nicely and one has to keep the CD case handy to keep track of cue titles. The result is still a seamless and enjoyable 65 minutes of brilliant Herrmann underscore. And don't bother uploading individual tracks to your iPod, because the score is best heard all in one sitting. I found that listening on headphones was the best way to take in this masterpiece, so that one can appreciate the wonderful nuances, arrangements, and high energy of one of cinema's greatest film scores.

North By Northwest: The Complete Score is limited to 3000 copies and is available through the
Varese Sarabande website.


  1. How interesting! :)

    I've seen NORTH BY NORTHWEST, but I honestly don't remember the score...I watch a lot of movies on mute, though, so who knows. ;)

    Good job.

  2. It's funny, but many die-hard movie lovers don't know about or even like film music! I, however, cannot contain my obsession with it, but I understand that the interest in it is marginal. I'm glad you liked it.


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