Before winning his second Oscar for his outstanding music score for the classic adventure film THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938), Austrian-born composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) choose to compose original scores for two Bette Davis films in 1939 while under contract to the Warner Brothers studio in Hollywood. The first score was for JUAREZ, a biopic on the life of the Mexican revolutionary (Paul Muni) against the Hapsburg dictatorship of 1860s Mexico. The second score was for THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX, a lavish Technicolor costume drama focusing on the fictional romance of England's Queen Elizabeth I (Bette Davis) and Robert Devereux (Errol Flynn), 2nd Earl of Essex, and based on the Maxwell Anderson play "Elizabeth the Queen." THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX's regal subject matter inspired Korngold to compose some of his most brilliant music for any medium. Like many of Korngold's Hollywood film scores of the 1930s and 1940s, this score contains brief musical passages that were previously used in his own classical and operatic works. For example, the full, rich statement of Queen Elizabeth's theme contains eight bars lifted entirely from Korngold's own "Kaiserin Zita-Hymne", composed in 1917 for the last Hapsburg Empress of Austria in his youth. THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX eventually earned him his second and last of two Oscar nominations for Best Original Score.
In 1992, this re-recording of the complete score was undertaken by the Munich Symphony Orchestra under the conduction of Carl Davis. Congratulations to Mr. Davis for his intelligent conduction: the orchestra does a commendable and even stunning job. Thanks to Davis' faithful orchestrations and the studio's top-notch stereo recording technology, the brass section is powerful and full, the strings are rich, the woodwinds are soft, and the percussion is sprightly and loud; in fact, the whole orchestra does excellent justice to Korngold's tremendous orchestrations and every instrument can be easily heard, including the piano on the opening track "Elizabeth And Essex". Surely the Munich Symphony Orchestra's performance is by no means a "flat, two-dimensional" performance that "suffers from impoverished diversity of instrumentation", to quote the only negative review of this product.
My only quibbles are trivial ones. Firstly, some orchestrations are occasionally in the wrong places, so to speak. On the track "Essex Returns", for example, a brief musical passage intended for trumpets is arranged for the violins section. It's a possibility that Mr. Davis and the orchestra are following Korngold's original orchestrations and such passages as heard in the finished film were finalized as different orchestrations at a later date back in 1939. However, such errors might only be noticed by those who have astutely listened to the film's original score on the film itself. Secondly, the mere six tracks on this CD are divided into long suites, one of which is as long as twelve minutes. This makes it somewhat difficult to locate a certain section of the score and can try a listener's patience!
Although THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX remains as one of Korngold's greatest film scores, other CDs including the score contain only excerpts. The best of these other CDs is Elizabeth & Essex: The Classic Film Scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, which contains a superlatively performed re-recording of the rare seven-minute overture used during the film's 1939 Hollywood premiere, played by the National Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of the great Charles Gerhardt. One can also listen to a short suite containing the prelude and Essex's march in the form of the original monophonic studio master tape recordings on the two-disc compilation album Erich Wolfgang Korngold: The Warner Bros Years - Motion Picture Soundtrack Anthology. A palatable re-recording of the prelude and Essex's march, performed by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under the conduction of James Sedares, can be found on Tribute to E.W. Korngold. However, the worst of the bunch and the one to avoid like the plague is Korngold: The Sea Hawk / The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex / Captain Blood / The Prince and the Pauper, which is shocking and extremely disappointing considering the talents of conductor André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra on their other recordings. The vigorous swagger of Essex's march is nearly reduced to that of an uncharacteristically turgid funeral dirge and is one of the many problems with this ponderous and just plain boring performance.
But this complete re-recording by Carl Davis and the Munich Symphony Orchestra is a very satisfactory revelation and a must-own for fans of Korngold and classic film scores. At a total time of 63:38 on the CD and at a price of under $10 on most websites including Amazon.com and iTunes, what is there to really complain about? Practically nothing.