Rozsa: Three Choral Suites (CD review)

Ben-Hur, Quo Vadis, and King of Kings. Erich Kunzel, Cincinnati Pops Orchestra; Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Telarc CD-80631.

Miklos Rozsa was to film music of the 1940's through 1980's what Max Steiner, Franz Waxman, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold had been even earlier and what John Williams and others have been since. Rozsa, along with fellow composer of the day Dimitri Tiomkin, meant big, really BIG, film music. Epic scores for epic movies. And who better to present such music than Eric Kunzel, the most-popular record conductor of all time, with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Did I mention "Big"?

The three movie pieces collected on this disc derive from suites that Rozsa began but never finished. They have been arranged and reconstructed by Daniel Robbins, Christopher Palmer, Julian Kershaw, Joseph D. Price, and conductor Kunzel. Each suite lasts about twenty minutes, with the disc containing over an hour of music. The unifying elements are Christ, Christianity, and the Roman Empire, with all of the music conveying pictorial variations of those central ideas.

Things start off with director William Wyler's Ben-Hur, subtitled "A Tale of the Christ," starring Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, and Stephen Boyd, and released in 1959. It won Academy Awards for just about everything that year, including Best Music for Rozsa. It's probably the finest of the three scores represented here, with "The Parade of the Charioteers" the highlight. Next is Mervyn LeRoy's Quo Vadis?, starring Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr, released in 1951.  The Academy nominated it for quite a few Oscars, including music, but didn't win any. The music doesn't have quite the grand sweep of Ben-Hur, but the "Assyrian Dance" is most colorful. Things wrap up with director Nicholas Ray's much-underrated King of Kings, starring Jeffrey Hunter, released in 1961. It contains the best single motif in its musical argument, a theme still almost instantly recognizable.

Needless to say, old-hand Kunzel brings everything off in the most lofty and imposing manner, with the Tabernacle Choir lending solemn and mellifluous support. The sound is pretty much what we have come to expect from this source; I mean, Kunzel has made about 800 such recordings now for Telarc, so all the folks involved should know what they're doing. The sound is big, to match the music; it's wide spread, wide ranging, open, vibrant, deep, resonant, not entirely transparent, but fairly realistic.

I missed El Cid, though. It is my favorite Rozsa score. Oh, well. No Romans, I suppose.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa