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CLASSICAL  December 2007

CLASSICAL December 2007

Subject:

Suites by Rozsa

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 17 Dec 2007 14:49:35 -0800

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text/plain

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Miklos Rozsa
Three Choral Suites

*  Ben-Hur
*  Quo Vadis
*  King of Kings

Mormon Tabernacle Choir
Cincinnati Pops Orchestra/Erich Kunzel
Telarc CD-80631 Total time: 61:54

Summary for the Busy Executive: Super-Technicolor Wow! Cue God.

The brilliant film composer Miklos Rozsa, unlike so many of his colleagues,
also happened to be a marvelous composer of concert and chamber music.
In fact, I find myself wishing that he had written more of the latter.
He didn't do so because film music paid the bills. We should probably
give thanks that he wrote as many "absolute" scores as he did, since
they represented acts of pure idealism. Sometimes, you gets what you
pays for.  Still, much really good music lies buried in his film scores,
and Rozsa did what he could to salvage some of it in orchestral suites
like Background to Violence and his arrangements of cues from Lust for
Life, The Jungle Book, Ben-Hur, El Cid, and King of Kings.

Apparently, Rozsa had planned to extract "choral" suites (ie, suites
with some of the movements calling for chorus) from his "epic" trilogy
- Quo Vadis, Ben-Hur, and King of Kings - but died before he could get
underway.  However, friends and colleagues did it for him, including his
musical assistant, the late Christopher Palmer, always eager to get the
composer's film music into the concert hall.

For those of you wondering, these suites differ in part from earlier
incarnations. The Ben-Hur prelude, for example, proclaims the familiar
opening "Roman" fanfare, but minus the alleluias, and it soon moves off
in a different direction than on the official soundtrack. There are many
reasons for the changes, chief among them, the nature of most movie
music. With very rare exceptions, a film's music "cue" lasts no more
than seconds. Many directors distrust extended music sequences, very
often because they feel that the audience will grow antsy if the actors
aren't speaking. Very few had the genius for using long set-pieces of
music found in the films of, say, Hitchcock, Chaplin, Eisenstein, Clair,
or Lubitsch, who, significantly, I think, all come from the silent era
and tend to favor the image and montage over dialogue. Consequently,
most arrangements of film music consist of splicing together separate
cues, and, of course, one can sequence these in many ways.

Two of the pictures, at any rate, are pseudo-Biblical kitsch, with Quo
Vadis so over the top, both in story and performances, that it crosses
over into outrageous camp. They're how the Holy Spirit would have written
the Gospels, if he had wanted to pitch them to a Hollywood producer. One
suspects that most of the movie audience can't take the Gospels straight.
King of Kings, after all, did the least well financially, and they had
to reshoot the Crucifixion when preview audiences objected to a Jesus
(a Nordic Jesus, at that!) with hair on his chest. Rozsa's score is just
about the only thing worth seeing the movie for, and even Rozsa is at
times infected by a piety-on-steroids mentality. Of the three films,
Ben-Hur and King of Kings are, despite occasional melodramatic lapses
of taste almost endemic to the genre, quite interesting. The original
novel Ben-Hur is helped a great deal by the movie script, which becomes
the story of a man on the edge of great events who ignores them through
obsession with his own agenda. The homoerotic undercurrent between hero
and villain is also very well done and provides a reasonable motive for
the villain's actions (a spurned lover) without becoming preachy. King
of Kings comes off less well as a whole, but there are wonderful moments:
Robert Ryan as John the Baptist in the confrontation with Herod and
Salome; Hurd Hatfield's reptilian Pilate; Jeffrey Hunter as the blond,
blue-eyed Jesus, doing pretty well in an ungrateful part. The movie's
also beautifully shot.

The question comes down to, if you have the soundtrack albums already,
whether you need these. In general, I prefer soundtrack albums to snippets,
and I can recommend almost without reservation the ones for Ben-Hur and
Quo Vadis (both on Dutton Labs UK B000KLNQ64, 2 CDs) and King of Kings
(Rhino B00006311P, also 2 CDs). For one thing, you get more context for
the music, as well as more music. On the other hand, it's four CDs for
the three movies.

Kunzel, a conductor I admire, nevertheless turns in an oddly flat reading
of the choral suites. Just about everything is pitched to jerk the knee
or wring the heart. The galley-slave sequence in Ben-Hur, for example,
is a study in quickening and crescendo. There are actually three tempi
in the score, corresponding to cruise, faster, and ramming speed. Kunzel
gets too loud and too fast too quickly, so that we experience only two
tempi, the latter for most of the movement. Rozsa himself does much
better and in general brings more shade and subtlety into scores that
warily toe the line of bombastic anyway. After a while, Kunzel's performance
is just too rich, like eating a whole jar of marshmallow cream at one
go all by yourself. I should add, however, that heard separately, the
suites fare much better.

I normally don't say much about sound quality, but Telarc's engineering
really bothered me. The choir and the orchestra sounded as if they were
recorded in different rooms, with the orchestra in a far brighter acoustic.
I checked the notes and - lo, and behold! (to coin a phrase) - that's
exactly what Telarc did. After all, the company couldn't reasonably
recoup the cost of transporting, feeding, and housing a symphony orchestra
or a mega-choir. Even so, the engineers - especially Telarc engineers,
with their reputation for high sound quality - should have taken more
care. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir - a choral behemoth - needs absolutely
no help to produce a rich, full sound. With what I hear as a goosed bass,
their tone is like a heavy, gloppy sauce over a nice piece of fish.

I can't deny that the CD is a lot of fun. It provides a nice wallow, but
it strikes me that you can find better alternatives.

Steve Schwartz

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