‘Dial M for Murder’ at the National Concert Hall, 15 August

Famed as the ‘master of suspense’, Alfred Hitchcock was one of the great directors of the twentieth century. His juxtaposition of music with film was truly innovative. For Hitchcock, ‘music’ was hermeneutically far-reaching in its definition, extending to dialogue, the sounds of everyday living, the timbre of electronic instruments, and silence itself. Resultantly, Hitchcock’s use of music in his films was multi tiered. On a primary level, he used scores to landscape scenes, whether it be a cascading view of the Riviera, or a murky street drenched in darkness. Moments of comedy were often festooned with tumbling woodwinds, fast-paced arching dialogues between instruments, bumbling percussion, and dance-like rhythmic passages. However, Hitchcock’s most remarkable treatment of musical sound was the manner in which he allowed it to develop into a voyeuristic medium through which the subconscious musings of the on-screen character is revealed. Tonight the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, under Neil Thomson, presents a kaleidoscope of Hitchcock’s works from the 1950s, replete with witty repartee from our narrator, the wonderfully engaging Seán Moncrieff.

As the credits role over a rippling piano concerto theme, evocative of holiday scenes of the 1950s, we encounter the window display of a travel bureau for the Cote d’Azur. The film is To Catch a Thief (1955), scored by Lyn Murray. Suddenly, a death-curdling scream shatters the surrounds of the National Concert Hall. A robbery has taken place. The crime is announced by a descending stabbing-motif in the strings. The screen dissolves to an image of a rather menacing-looking cat weaving about the darkened rooftops, voiced by atonal woodwinds. We then cut to the real cat burglar, the dashing Cary Grant, who comically outwits a group of pursuing detectives. Here, Murray supplies a frivolous theme played out in an angular exchange between brass and woodwind. The scene fades out amid enthusiastic applause.

Moncrieff introduces Strangers on a Train (1951), for which Dmitri Tiomkin provided the soundtrack. A technical glitch in the sound booth generates a momentary halt to the proceedings. However, Thomson comes to the rescue and the film is reset. In a bid to elucidate the complicated plot in fast-paced scenes, Tiomkin employed Wagnerian devices to differentiate between the two protagonists, Guy Haines (Farley Granger) and Bruno Antony (Robert Walker). Bruno’s theme is dripping in menace with growling bass, complex harmonies and shrieking strings, whilst Guy’s swooning, uninteresting violin theme appears restorative and hopeful. The crux of the plot pivots on a terrifying carousel scene, in which the fairground ride spins wildly out of control. The music here is electrifying. Tiomkin’s score is almost script-like in its fragmented crossing of musical ideas. The audience responds with gasps of “bravo”, and rousing shouts of approval.

Bernard Herrmann’s chilling theme for Vertigo (1958) concludes the first half of the programme. Spiraling triplets in contrary motion plunge us into the unnerving tale of fear, obsession and death. The scene shows the psychologically troubled detective Scottie (James Stewart) coerce Judy (Kim Novak) into altering her appearance. She complies with his requests because he promises to love her in return. Herrmann’s score here is bewitching. Again flickers of Wagner emerge through Tristan-like suspensions, suggestive of Scottie’s unraveling sense of reality.

The final films of the night demonstrate Hitchcock’s almost onomatopoeic use of music in moments of peril. In Dial M for Murder (1954) Tiomkin transforms the entire orchestra into a clock as it counts down to the impending botched murder scene. Herrmann’s scoring of North by Northwest (1959) makes use of a dramatic fandango to convey Cary Grant’s terrifying car chase in the opening scene, and his death-defying traversing of Mount Rushmore. The conflicted setting of duple against triple meter reinforces the physical landscape of winding roads, and mountainous terrain. The constantly changing orchestral palate heightens the thrilling tension.

Bravo to the RTÉ Concert Orchestrafor an utterly compelling and entertaining performance.