Miklos ROZSA
Ben Hur (1959) (Fanfare to Prelude; Star of Bethlehem and Adoration of the Magi; Friendship; The burning desert; Arrius's Party; Rowing of the galley slaves; Parade of the charioteers; The mother's love; Return to Judea; Ring for freedom; Lepers' search for the Christ; Procession to Calvary; Miracle and Finale) [47:10]
National Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus/Miklos Rozsa
Quo Vadis (1951) (Prelude; Marcus and Lygia; Fertility hymn; The burning of Rome; Petronius’s Banquet, Meditation and Death; Ave Caesar; Chariot chase; Assyrian dance; Aftermath (Death of Peter – Death of Poppaea – Nero’s suicide); Hail Galba; Finale; Epilogue) [40:09]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus/Miklos Rozsa
Julius Caesar (1953) (The Ides of March; Caesar’s ghost; Approach of Octavian’s army and death of Brutus) [12:24]
National Philharmonic Orchestra/Bernard Herrmann
rec. London, 1974-77. ADD
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 3790 [47:10 + 52:47]

These re-recordings of extended sequences from three Rozsa-scored epics of the 1950s were landmarks of the LP era. They rode a little to the rear of the vanguard of film re-recordings established by RCA's and Charles Gerhardt’s Classic Film Score series. They did however, in the case of Ben Hur, use the same orchestra as Gerhardt. They have a special cachet because they were conducted by the composer in two cases.

As for Julius Caesar I recall seeing that film while attending Homelands Technical High School in Torquay in the 1960s – it was notable for its Hollywood accents. That play was part of the then O Level syllabus at a time when recalling great speeches was part and parcel of taking the exam. Truth to tell I don’t recall much about the music. That came to mean more a decade later when my interest in classical and film music began to burgeon.

Here at last we can enjoy again these three recordings without the anxiety of LP ticks and scratches. They still sound voluptuous and affluent. The brass work is gloriously clear and whoopingly golden in tone. This is accentuated by the harp slashes and parries for example at Friendship in the Ben Hur score. The lightly erotic dances for Arrius’s Party recall the music for Basil Poledouris’s Conan satyricon orgy and Herrmann’s Sinbad dance music. The timpani reflect the hortator’s relentless trireme oar-beat tempo and are capped with ragged brass fanfares. Parade of the charioteers is suitably brash and vainglorious. Return to Judaea carries all the burden of a lifelong quest, hope borne down with despair and a skirl that cannot help but be Hungarian. Ring for Freedom has that trademark sighing sway and poignant high-probing violin glow that eloquently bespeaks love and melancholy. We’ll draw a veil over the fact that the booklet refers to the Procession to Cavalry when it means Calvary. The final track is Miracle and Finale and here Hollywood style meets Cathedral choral vocalise and alleluias. It’s tremendous as the brass and bells ring out.

Quo Vadis
is another epic with more abrasive barbarity and less heavenly saccharin than in Ben Hur. There are, on the other hand, more idyllically pastoral references and some gentle easy-going melodies as in Petronius’s Banquet which continues with a shade more exoticism in Assyrian Dance even if it does drift into Iberian regions. Rozsa’s researches in Italy are said to have assisted with the scoring. Interesting that Rozsa’s string quartet (presumably the First of the two) was dedicated to his friend Peter Ustinov who played Nero. The Finale is very delicately scored with the choir magically poised and distant. The Epilogue is vintage Rozsa – having the great unhurried stride of his best epic scores – still so fresh. For this project Rozsa and Universal switched to the Royal Philharmonic.

Rozsa stands down as conductor and we next hear Herrmann’s tribute to Rozsa in three scenes from Julius Caesar, a film starring James Mason and Marlon Brando. Here the sound seems somewhat stressed when loud but the portentous atmosphere can be cut with a knife. Predictably Herrmann chose the Caesar’s Ghost music and this does indeed come across with lustrous creepiness. We return to epic heartland with the Approach of Octavian’s army and the death of Brutus. This is music relentlessly freighted with tragedy.

Magnificent performances and recordings complemented by really good notes by Raymond Tuttle who evidently takes time to enhance the listening experience with the right words.

Rob Barnett

Magnificent performances and recordings.