Anyone interested in Orson Welles' controversial 1942 film "The Magnificent Ambersons" (which the director always contended was mutilated by the studio) owes it to himself to sample the Criterion laser-disc issue, which offers not only the film itself, with running commentary on the edits, but enough supplemental material that one can almost reconstruct Welles' original vision.
One thing that edition does not provide, however, is the substantial chunk of Bernard Herrmann's music that was jettisoned along with the visual trims (which totaled more than 50 minutes) - enough, in fact, to cause him to have his name removed from the film.That has now been corrected, almost in toto, by the above-listed Preamble CD, which contains newly recorded performances of all but four of the film's music cues, two of them being alternate versions of the same material.
Compared with Herrmann's own performances, on both the soundtrack and his "Welles Raises Kane" LP of some years back, Bremner's seem a trifle laid back. But that suits this score well enough, with its air of bittersweet nostalgia, as Welles mourns the passing of the pre-industrial age (represented by the coming of the automobile) and the way of life that went with it. Especially its fragrant use of the Waldteufel waltz "Toujours ou Jamais," which in one form or another weaves its way through the whole.
On the other hand, the score's more somber elements, especially in cuts like "Prelude" and "Scene Pathetique," register more strongly here than in the finished film. In this context even the ostensibly lighter sections, such as "Snow Ride," take on a darker edge, all the more remarkable given Herrmann's economical scoring.
I still would not class either the picture or the score among the composer's finest, a judgment I realize many would take issue with. For all the magnificence of the film itself, this just remains too distant a story, with a singularly unsympathetic central character. But quality there is aplenty, and now more quantity than ever, enhanced by unusually helpful liner notes and silver-backed cover art of Norman Rockwell's paintings of the cast.
"Vertigo," by contrast, does seem to me one of Herrmann's, and by extension anyone's, finest movie scores, allied with a film of comparable stature. Surely no filmmaker has ever drawn the viewer more completely into the world of obsessive love than Alfred Hitchcock does here, with Herrmann's strikingly "Tristan"-esque music aiding him every step of the way.
Happily it, too, is now available on CD, via the above-listed reissue of the original soundtrack. I don't know that Muir Mathieson's direction is as disciplined as Herrmann's might have been, or that Philips, the disc's producer, would not have been well advised to go back and mine the master tapes for even more. As things stand, this disc contains less than 35 minutes of music.
But I am pleased to report that the stereo image has been sharpened, finally persuading me that this is indeed true stereo, even if the sound does occasionally lack the depth of the imported Mercury LP. Along the same lines, other improved remasterings to come my way in recent months include Varese Sarabande's "Lawrence of Arabia" (which we knew to have been recorded in stereo, but on the original LPs sure didn't sound it) and the same label's "The Egyptian," mono-only (barring a little enhancement) but a durn sight better than its predecessors.
Produced in collaboration with Alfred Newman, this last score may not be out of Herrmann's top drawer, or even up to "The Magnificent Ambersons." But with its somber hues and freedom from the usual cliches, it shows once again that, with this composer, there simply wasn't any bottom drawer, no matter how much pressure he and his colleagues were under.