May 2002 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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Miklós Rózsa
King of Kings  
  RHINO R2-78348 2-CD set   [77:38 and 56:49]

King of Kings

Though the composer thought poorly of the film (understandable) as well as his own contribution (inconceivable!), Miklós Rózsa 's "The Robe"is yet another epic cinematic symphony. His third and final approach to a tale of the Christ is not as dynamic as its predecessors, "Quo Vadis"and "Ben-Hur", yet it has an unapologetic style that those classics miss. From the beginning, we hear a choral theme that would seem clichéd, if not entirely goofy, in almost any other composer's hands. Rózsa puts a twist on this -- which, like most of the score, bears appropriate similarities to his past Biblical masterworks -- with subtly, curiously oppressive orchestration. His entire approach has an extra weight to it, to fit with the more violent film, but also to vary his role in the genre. Challenged with underscoring issues he was already well practised in emphasising, Miklós Rózsa took a darker route, put more attention on Hebrew tonalities than the pseudo-Roman idiom he previously invented, and as a devoutly romantic, leitmotivic composer, he expressed his contempt for serial music, using it to underscore Christ's temptation in the desert. He asserted that the 12-tone technique was appropriate to (and deserving of) the threat of eternal damnation, and this instance marks his only use of it within his entire career. He handles all of this with professionalism, beauty, and some dry wit.

The album itself is the second CD issue drawn from the original masters (the first, vinyl album was a classy re-recording). Sony Music's one-disc release in 1992 met miserable sales, until it was discontinued in under a year, suddenly turning it into a much sought-after collectable. Rhino Record's two-disc set is a wonder, but some curious editing decisions work against Rózsa' score. Such things as a six-second bit of source music (Track 9) being left hanging, when it could easily have broken straight into the following track, and the lack of supplemental material, are severely disappointing. How could anyone release "King of Kings"without Rózsa's magnificent arrangement of 'The Lord's Prayer' from the original album? The presentation clearly lacks compared to Rhino's "Ben-Hur", though it has a more musically informative booklet (most of it drawn from the original album, notably the composer's own thoughts, in addition to details on the film culled from the movie's publicity notes) and the sound, while not on the same level of excellence, is impressive nonetheless.

Historically, "King of Kings"is a soundtrack essential for any glimpse into Miklós Rózsa's incredible career. Cinematically, it shows the composer surpassing the film's tedious spectacle with the genuine article. Musically, "King of Kings" continues Rózsa's unparalleled sophistication. What a welcome, joyous filmusic release this is.

Jeffrey Wheeler


John Huether adds:-

It must be a sign of the rich times we lovers of classic film music live in that my first reaction to this stunning, full-score release of a Miklós Rózsa masterpiece is to carp about its lack of original liner notes. Clearly, people like me are becoming spoiled. So let's put that caveat aside for the moment and focus instead on the beauty of this 1961 score, offered here by Rhino for the first time in all its 134-minute glory, with extended cues in a few cases. Rózsa was never blessed with a light touch, but when richness and soul-wrenching, religious passion were called for, who could match him? Ironically, this score may actually be among his lesser-known works, due largely to the fact that "King of Kings"followed close on the heels -- both time- and subject-wise -- of "Ben-Hur,"Rózsa's magnum opus of magnum opuses. ('Son-of-Ben-Hur' music for the Son of God, you might say.) Indeed, we've heard this before -- the mood, the texture, the Hebraic-based melody and orchestral complexion. What's so impressive, then, is how Rózsa manages to make it all sound so fresh, as though he were approaching the topic for the very first time.

"King of Kings"opens with a slow, sombre chime that quickly builds to a massive choral statement of the main theme, voiced as a joyous and glorious Hosannah! by the MGM choir. This theme, clearly composed for voice, is among Rózsa's simplest yet most memorable, and works as a frequent leitmotif throughout the film, often with a soft, wordless female choral accompaniment but otherwise little variation. (Faced with what he later would term so much "nonsensical biblical goulash, "Rózsa clearly relies on this theme to provide the film a semblance of unity and coherence.) The theme includes a secondary motif that's suggestive of Rome's might and power. It's heard in the main title cue, which segues without a break (as do many of the tracks on this double-CD release) into the cue 'Roman Legion. ' This is one of two marches -- the other is 'Pontius Pilate's Arrival' -- that easily call to mind similar cues from "Ben-Hur."Rózsa makes both marches interesting, nevertheless.

More impressive still is his music for 'Nativity,' again echoing a similar scene from the earlier film. (The story of how director William Wyler wanted Rózsa to score Jesus' birth with 'Adeste Fidelis' is legendary. Under no such strictures this time, he surpasses the earlier effort with music at once delicate and inspirational.)

Another key theme underscores 'The Lord's Prayer.' First introduced in low, almost mournful strings, the music carries the gentle cadence of the prayer. (The LP version features a choral version of the prayer, which I'd always assumed was sung in the film. Not so, apparently. It also apparently serves as the film's exit music, about which more later.) A wealth of secondary thematic material is heard throughout the 53 cues contained here on 43 tracks. Most impressive is Mary's theme, introduced delicately on solo oboe against widely spaced, plucked harp, and heard again in truly heart-breaking form for deep strings in the cue 'Joy and Sadness.' The theme sounds rather closely related to the 'Mother's Love' cue in "Ben-Hur,"though it also seems capable of more variation and development, as required in this latter film.

And, for Rózsa philes, this trivia: "King of Kings"contains the only 12-tone theme the composer ever wrote, at least for films. It depicts the devil in the cue 'The Last Temptation of Christ.' In his autobiography, "A Double Life,"Rózsa says he resorted to what he considers a "stillborn"musical idea to depict the Devil a sort of musical in-joke that no one, unfortunately, caught onto.
Other material includes ennobling theme for 'the Elders' and 'The Disciples,' as well as material for John the Baptist that is mostly suggestive, to me, of the antiquity of the film's setting.

One outstanding track consists of five separate cues: The first, 'Jesus Enters Jerusalem,' captures the excitement and expectations of Palm Sunday, opening with tremulous strings over which Rózsa lays agitated winds followed by brass heralding Jesus' arrival. Frenzied music ensues as Barabbas incites a riot ('Tempest in Judea') which then gives way to an insistent, relentless cadence of drumbeats alternating with cymbal clashes as the Roman Phalanx moves in to crush the revolt. The nearly 15-minute track ends with 'The Feast of the Passover,' a somber choral work -- one of several cues for which Rózsa drew on ancient Babylonian or Yemenite melodies.

Two things in surprisingly short supply: trumpet fanfares (just one) and palace dances -- only two, or three if you count the deleted reprise of the key one, 'Salome's Dance.' Because this cue had to serve, in effect, as source music, it was the first one Rózsa composed for the film, and he describes the less-than-ideal circumstances he faced: "I was almost in tears. Here was a choreographer who had never choreographed and a dancer who had never danced."The result was so "disastrous,"Rózsa notes in his autobiography, that the scene was cut down to just a few minutes. What's offered here, then, must be an extended cue which, coupled with the deleted reprise also contained on this recording, equals the length of the cue Rózsa provided on his re-recording of the score for LP. (And which he clearly feels strongly about, as he modestly recommends it to readers of "A Double Life.") That LP, by the way, is a treasure. Rózsa conducted it in Rome and, while it contains less than one-third as much music as this new release, it's wonderfully representative of the score. Plus, it contains several apparent changes -- both improvements -- which the composer clearly felt appropriate. First, there is the 'Mount Galilee' / 'Sermon on the Mount' cue, which begins on the LP with a combination of deep, descending chimes played against rising, wordless male and female voices. This is among my personal favourites of all the music Rózsa wrote for biblical films but what's heard on the corresponding Rhino cue is a more standard orchestral version, lacking both the chimes and choral accompaniment. The music as heard on the LP does appear here, but only in the overture. Why didn't Rózsa use it in the actual film cue? Similarly, the LP offers a combined 'Resurrection' and 'Finale' cue featuring the main 'Hosannah' theme followed by a breathtaking segue to 'The Lord's Prayer' accompanied by wordless choir. As with my misconception (noted above) over the use of 'The Lord's Prayer' with words, I've also always assumed this combined finale was used in the film. In fact, though, the final film cue ('Resurrection') on the CD ends, simply enough, with the 'Hosannah' theme. This is followed by a separate, concluding 'Epilogue' consisting of 'The Lord's Prayer' and which, I assume, served as exit music for roadshow engagements of "King of Kings."

You'll notice how often I've referred to my own assumptions in the course of the above review. Which brings me full circle to my opening caveat about this new release. It's shameful that such a massive score should be offered without any explanatory detail, musical analysis or even cue/scene descriptions. Yes, the accompanying 44-page booklet does include the cue descriptions Rózsa provide for the LP's cues - but these were written for general consumption and lack the insight film score aficionados should expect with a full-score offering of this sort. Besides, these refer to the 'Sermon on the Mount' and 'Resurrection-Finale' cues as heard on the LP, and thus are inaccurate for this recording. Imagine what fascinating information and insight a Christopher Palmer might have provided. To give credit, album producer George Fecklestein has done a nice job of reproducing the deluxe production booklet sold during the film's roadshow engagement and which also accompanied the soundtrack LP. It has production stills, background information and a full cast list -- but nothing of value regarding the music, which is virtually the only aspect of "King of Kings" that proved memorable. Beyond that, this otherwise superb release desperately calls for comment on Miklós Rózsa at this unique time in his career -- when, in the course of three years, he scored "El Cid" and "Sodom and Gomorrah," as well as "King of Kings" and "Ben-Hur". Has another composer achieved anything comparable in that amount of time?

John Huether


Gary S. Dalkin concludes :-

There is little point my providing a full length review to complement the two above, as I agree almost entirely with what has been said. Almost since the moment I became interested in film music 30 years ago I have regarded Miklós Rózsa as one of the very greatest of all film composers, and it has long disappointed and astonished me that far less worthwhile scores by lesser composers have been endlessly reissued and/or re-recorded while Rózsa's work has languished semi-forgotten. It is astonishing that it has taken over 40 years for this score to finally be released in complete form, but now hopefully we will have no more than another year or two to wait for El Cid, and perhaps even Quo Vadis, though given the age of those masters a spectacular new recording would be rather more welcome than yet another disc of a second rate score by a second division talent.

I can't say that I am particularly concerned about the lack of detailed musicological notes accompanying this issue, and I did not expect it to be packaged as lavishly as the Ben-Hur set, which after all could be expected to sell many more copies. Nor am I concerned that "bonus tracks"from the original re-recorded LP have not being included. That was a separate project. I am simply grateful to have this magnificent music, elegantly packed with a high quality (if reduced in size) reprint of the original brochure. The sound, taken from the original masters, is far superior to the 1992 single CD Sony edition, which was plagued with a distortion far less noticeable here. My one grumble would be that Rhino could have taken the trouble, and had the respect, to print the composer's name correctly, with the appropriate accents over the ó's. That they have not is something of an insulting Americanisation. Film Score Monthly get it right on this month's other indispensable Miklós Rózsa issue, Lust For Life. Otherwise everyone who last year swooned over the two CD set of Cleopatra must add this to their collections. Miklós Rózsa's King of Kings is simply one of the finest film scores ever written.

Gary S. Dalkin


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