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November 30, 2003
Robin Hood Redeemed
New CD, DVD releases bestow justice on Korngold's 1938 score
by Jon Burlingame

Fans of the film music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold have three new reasons to rejoice: two incarnations of The Adventures of Robin Hood, one on CD, the other on DVD; and a documentary, Erich Wolfgang Korngold: The Adventures of a Wunderkind, also on DVD.

The newly released compact disc is the latest in Marco Polo's ongoing series of film-music re-recordings by William Stromberg and the Moscow Symphony Orchestra (Marco Polo 8.225268). The 1938 Korngold score has been meticulously reconstructed, based on the original Hugo Friedhofer-Milan Roder orchestrations and careful scrutiny of the still-surviving original recording sessions.

Morgan and Stromberg have done a lot of terrific work to date, notably on Max Steiner music, from King Kong to Treasure of the Sierra Madre. But by any standard, this must be considered one of their very best. At over 78 minutes of music, it is – for the first time on disc – the entire score, which not only won Korngold his second Academy Award but is widely considered among his best work in Hollywood.

It is always rewarding to read Morgan's notes about the restoration process, because the indicate the level of care these artists have taken, and the detail of their research, in their attempts to do justice to the composers' original intentions. This installment is no different, as Morgan describes what was missing and the lengths they went to try and ascertain what Korngold had in mind.

The remainder of the 28-page booklet boasts contributions by the only two writers one could possibly trust with the background of this film and its extraordinary score: Rudy Behlmer, the author of Inside Warner Bros. and the world's foremost authority on The Adventures of Robin Hood; and Brendan G. Carroll, whose The Last Prodigy: A Biography of Erich Wolfgang Korngold is the definitive word on the composer's life and works.

As for the music, it far surpasses the longest previous recording (the 1983 Varese Sarabande LP by Varujan Kojian and the Utah Symphony Orchestra, which ran about 43 minutes) in completeness and attention to detail.

But, great as the Korngold score is, it's important to remember that it's also part of a great movie. And Warner Bros. Home Video has at last done justice to the film itself, with a lavish 2-DVD "special edition" that brilliantly restores the original Technicolor film and features more "extras" than most buffs could ever want.

Korngold receives his due as part of the behind-the-scenes documentary, six minutes of Behlmer and conductor John Mauceri talking about the dramatic real-life background of Korngold's emigration to America to do Robin Hood as the Nazis were about to march into his beloved Austria. Mauceri describes the score as "some of the most dazzlingly brilliant music ever written."

The "audio vault" segment features Korngold himself at the piano, playing excerpts from nine of his great Hollywood scores, including the love theme and finale from Robin Hood; and the May 1938 radio show featuring Korngold conducting excerpts from the score and Basil Rathbone as the narrator. There is also a music-only audio track for dyed-in-the-wool Korngold fans who don't want to be bothered with such troublesome things as dialogue and sound effects. (And what a treat it is, to realize that the original, unexpurgated music tracks still exist after all these years.)

The new Korngold DVD – part of the Arthaus Musik "Composers of Our Time" series – spends about half an hour on the composer's time in Hollywood, again featuring both Behlmer and Carroll talking about Korngold's film career, including a cleverly edited package of clips from the Warner Bros. classics. "They knew what he could do, and they let him alone," notes Behlmer. "He invented, almost at one stroke, the symphonic film score that we know today," adds Carroll.

The DVD is billed as "a portrait and concert," and thus includes videotaped performances of four Korngold works, including the cello concerto from "Deception" and the violin concerto, which incorporates themes originally penned for Anthony Adverse, Juarez, The Prince and the Pauper and Another Dawn. Hugh Wolff conducts the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra (with soloists Quirine Viersin, cello, and Leonidas Kavakos, violin). Both performances are lovely, and another reminder of how exquisite Korngold's music could be – even in the service of mere "motion pictures" which were once considered completely disposable entertainment.

© 2003 Jon Burlingame

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