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Franz Waxman: Joshua
17 Jun 2007

WAXMAN: Joshua

Franz Waxman was working with librettist James Forsyth on an opera, Dr. Jekyll, when the composer’s wife died.

Franz Waxman: Joshua

Ann Hallenberg, Peter Buchi, Maxmilian Schell, Rodney Gilfry, Prague Philharmonic Chorus, Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, James Sedares (cond.)

DG 00289 477 5724 [CD]

$13.99  Click to buy

For reasons the booklet essay of this DG release does not explain, he decided to compose a dramatic oratorio, based on the Book of Joshua, in honor of his spouse. Work on the opera was suspended, and Forsyth adapted the texts. At its premiere in 1959, the work received some strongly favorable reviews. yet the oratorio Joshua slipped into neglect, until the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, Inc., supplied the funding for this recording.

An oratorio on a biblical subject, as late as 1959, suggests a musically conservative work. While the music is indeed strongly tonal, with dissonant elements utilized only for pointed dramatic effect, Joshua contains inspired music. Film composers usually get the rap that their serious efforts still sound like background scoring. There are moments like that in the score, but for the most part, Waxman’s inspiration has a greater cohesiveness and subtler effects than even his finest work in films. The striking opening, with a memorable oboe solo, sets a mood itself, rather than simply illustrating a cinematic scene. Perhaps the music veers a little bit too close to “biblical epic” scoring in the section about “the house of a harlot,” but the problem there may be more with the English texts unintentionally prompting snickers.

Part one, through the siege of Jericho, grips the listener throughout, but as part two ensues, Waxman’s invention wanes a bit and the piece begins to wear out its welcome. Ultimately, Joshua can’t overcome a sense that Waxman took on an artistic challenge few if any had any interest in accomplishing anymore. However, the score’s strongest sections could make for a suite that would please concert hall audiences much more than any number of serial/atonal pieces written around the same time.

DG has not provided separate tracks for Maximilian Schell’s narration, and as the actor gets a bit hammy form time to time, that’s unfortunate. One can skip ahead to the next track when Schell begins his spiel, as invariably he comes in at the end a section. In brief solo sections, Rod Gilfry sings both Joshua and Moses with masculine authority. James Sedares and the Prague Philharmonia perform as professionally as any Hollywood studio orchestra Waxman ever worked with, and in excellent sound.

No, not a lost masterpiece, but an enjoyable work, which is more than can be said for a lot of “serious” music from 1959.

Chris Mullins

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