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Miklós RÓZSA (1907–1995)
Suite from The Thief of Bagdad (1940) [19:46]
Suite from Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book (1942) [31:12]
Suite from Sahara (1943, arr. Christopher Palmer) [7:46]
Suite from Ben-Hur (1959) [21:17]
BBC Philharmonic/Rumon Gamba
rec. MediaCity UK, Salford, 19-20 July 2013
CHANDOS CHAN 10806 [80:07]

Although he composed a number of substantial orchestral and chamber works, Rózsa may be better for his many film scores which earned him quite a reputation in that field. They also enabled him to compose his concert works. When he had left Leipzig for Paris, the composer had to find a way to make some extra income and thus composed a number of so-called popular songs under the pseudonym of Nic Tomay. As Andrew Knowles remarks, they were only moderately successful. Arthur Honegger then suggested that Rózsa should write music for films and that he should go to see Les Misérables for which Honegger had composed a substantial score. This experience proved important as we now all know. Rózsa then left Paris and went to London. There he composed a ballet that apparently proved successful. He was however still in need of some income. It was at this point that he met his friend, the film director Jacques Feyder whom he had known in Paris. Feyder engaged him to compose the music for his next film Knight without Armour (1937) for Korda's London Films company. Rózsa was to write the music for a number of Korda films among which we find The Thief of Bagdad (1939/40) and Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book (1942). These last two are amongst the finest of the composer's many film scores although I am ready to admit that others may feel differently.
 
One of the most striking characteristics of Rózsa's film music is that, like his concert music, it is deeply rooted in the composer's Hungarian soil and breathes some decidedly Hungarian air that cannot be mistaken. Rózsa rarely attempts 'cheap' imitation of exoticism and chooses to remain himself. While listening to his music, be it his film scores or his concert works, one is quite often reminded of Kodály and sometimes – to these ears at least – of Vaughan Williams. This has probably to do with the modal character of much of the music. That said, Rózsa cannot be mistaken for any other composer.
 
This quite generously filled release offers much. Here are three large-scale suites and one smaller example. They are presented in chronological order so that it is thus possible to observe the deep stylistic coherence found in Rózsa's music, the short suite from Sahara being a possible exception.
 
Earlier in this review I mentioned the name of Kodály and Rózsa's magnificent score for The Thief of Bagdad sometimes harks back to Kodaly's Hary Janos. Several episodes such as The Sultan's Toys [track 4] and The Flying Horse Gallop [track 5] clearly reminisce around episodes in Kodály's work. The music is again superb and vintage Rózsa throughout in that it is colourful, wonderfully scored and warmly melodic. It may be light in tone but it is not lightweight. This is superb fairy-tale music - full of magic and enchantment.
 
It seems that Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book was a great success so that RCA Victor wanted to make an album of the music emulating Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf. A text was put together by Anthony Gibbs and Rózsa devised a suite for narrator and orchestra with Sabu recounting the story. It is here presented without narration. Thus, as with the Prokofiev piece, characters, human beings and animals are each represented by a leitmotif so that it is quite possible to 'follow' the story even without narration provided one has absorbed Andrew Knowles' detailed notes. All characters are thus presented in the long opening section. Then episodes follow each other in quick succession which allows Rózsa to display his seemingly inexhaustible imagination. This magnificent score abounds in colourful orchestral touches as well as deploying often quite beautiful thematic material.
 
As hinted at in the above, Rózsa's score for the war film Sahara is somewhat more traditional in many respects. The music is much more redolent of similar scores by Alwyn, Walton and Vaughan Williams. The short suite arranged by the late Christopher Palmer opens with a energetic and appropriately war-like gestures followed by a big 'Elgarian' march tune that one might have heard in many a British war film of that period. However, Rózsa manages to remain himself in some slower, more meditative episodes.
 
Ben-Hur (1959) is not Rózsa's first attempt at writing music for a film set in ancient Rome. In fact he had already done so in Quo Vadis (1951) and Julius Caesar (1953), but Ben-Hur was to be a much bigger affair for which Rózsa composed around three hours of music. As is quite often the case, the composer's use of leitmotifs representing various characters allowed for some development which is absent from the suite drawn from the film grouping six key moments. (A so-called choral suite arranged and reconstructed by Daniel Robbins is available on Telarc SACD-60631 review review). As far as I am concerned, this is by far the most familiar music, were it only because I have seen this film repeatedly. I must admit that I was not born at the time when the other films were made. What one has here is the powerful Prelude again presenting some of the main leitmotifs (Ben-Hur, Christ, Esther). The following Love Theme is another purely Hungarian outpouring. The next episodes The Burning Desert in which the almost unbearable heat is remarkably suggested by sun-drenched music that pauses for the short episode in which the Stranger (Christ) gives Ben-Hur water and The Rowing of the Galley Slaves form a strongly contrasting diptych within the suite. This section is again impressive in the way the music piles up from a fairly simple start to a ferocious climax. In The Mother's Love Rózsa draws on a Hebraic theme of Yemenite origin to express the sorrow of Ben-Hur's mother. The final movement is probably the best-known of all, Parade of the Charioteers, full of fanfares, pounding drums and martial themes.
 
The Chandos Movies Series has gone from strength to strength from the very beginning. There have been many marvellous releases without which one would be the poorer. There is so much fine music to unearth from film scores which passes unnoticed most of the time. Once heard without the pictures one realises that their respective composers actually put much of their deeper self into the making.
 
I need not mention that performances and recording are up to the best Chandos standards. Andrew Knowles' excellent and detailed insert notes are – again – an unquestionable asset.
 
This generously filled release is self-commending to every Rózsa fan. They will welcome new recordings of some much loved music but this will also speak to many others who simply enjoy fine, superbly crafted music.
 
Hubert Culot
 
Previous review: Brian Wilson

Chandos Movies series review index