Cincinnati Pops Orchestra (Kunzel) - Rozsa: Three Choral Suites: Ben-Hur, Quo Vadis, King of Kings

Cincinnati Pops Orchestra (Kunzel) – ‘Rozsa: Three Choral Suites: Ben-Hur, Quo Vadis, King of Kings’ An SACD review by Mark Jordan

Just as the sweep and pageantry of the great mid-twentieth century Biblical film epics were more concerned with high drama than with authentic historical detail, so the musical scores for these grand productions had more to do with the great late-romantic composers such as Mahler and Strauss than with the music of ancient times. Indeed, to this day, epic film music remains a highly developed branch of post-romanticism with many devoted followers. But this new Telarc SACD gives a chance to hear a luscious presentation of three suites arranged for chorus and orchestra from the evocative scores of Miklos Rozsa as independent works, an approach which is bound to attract a wider audience for this music which has been shamefully underrated for far too long. Rozsa may have been no Mahler, but he certainly can hold his own against many far more honored names in the classical pantheon.

Miklos Rozsa (1907-1995) was born in Hungary and trained in Germany, studying with organist and composer Sigfrid Karg-Elert. He had a successful youthful career as a composer of concert music, receiving the praise of Richard Strauss along the way. It wasn’t until the late 1930’s that Rozsa ventured into the world of film music. But he quickly found that he had both the style many directors were looking for and the knack for capturing drama and emotions quickly and powerfully in his scores. After early successes with director Alexander Korda in London, Rozsa followed Korda when he relocated to Hollywood. There Rozsa joined the ranks of the post-romantic film masters such as the brilliant Viennese composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold and gifted Russian Dimitri Tiomkin. If Korngold was the most suavely Mahlerian, and Tiomkin brought brooding Russian flavors to his scores, Rozsa was the most versatile of the three, adding dashes of local color to his soundtracks to evoke the exotic settings of mid-century blockbuster films.

The composer himself expressed an interest in arranging suites for chorus and orchestra from some of his 1950’s film scores, but he passed away before finishing the project. Various friends and colleagues, though, have stepped in to arrange the suites, given their world premiere recording here by Telarc. Daniel Robbins arranged suites from ‘Ben-Hur’ and ‘King of Kings’ . A suite from ‘Quo Vadis’ was assembled by committee, starting with a conception by Christopher Palmer, with compilation and transcription by Julian Kershaw, and editing by conductor Erich Kunzel and Joseph D. Price.

Probably most famous here is the music from ‘Ben-Hur’ , the epic based on General Lew Wallace’s novel of the same name. The film, directed by William Wyler and produced by Sam Zimbalist, earned Rozsa his third Oscar award. Although Rozsa had extensively developed his highly dramatic style well before this film was made (1959), it is the score which most immediately comes into most people’s minds when the subject of pre- ‘Star Wars’ film music is discussed. Whether it is the broad, spacious music of the ‘Overture’ or the grandeur of the ‘Finale’, this is the music which gave a classy, serious tone to films that often risked gilding-the-lily in their costumed extravagance and ham-fisted acting. Most memorable of all from ‘Ben-Hur’ , surely, is Rozsa’s music entitled ‘Rowing of the Galley Slaves’. The pounding timpani lining out the pace for the slaves who pulled the oars powering Roman warships has since become an iconic sound and image, oft imitated in other films, parodied in comedy shows, and tapped for use in television commercials. The ‘Ben-Hur’ suite is in the sure hands of veteran conductor Erich Kunzel here, leading the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra, with choral contributions from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir under the incisive direction of Craig Jessop. Kunzel, a pupil of the great French maestro Pierre Monteux, has specialized in the classical pops repertory for decades, leading the Cincinnati Pops for forty years. With that orchestra, he pulled off the unlikely feat of trumping the once-unbeatable Boston Pops to become the most successful pops orchestra in the world. Kunzel is a master at knowing where to let the music flow and where to turn up the voltage, and thus shapes this suite symphonically. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it begin showing up on regular symphonic concerts.

The ‘Ben-Hur’ suite opens with an ‘Overture’ colored with a rich, handsome glow by the Cincinnati players. The recording also wonderfully captures the rasp of the lower brass instruments in the opening bars. The largest musical instrument in this recording is Cincinnati’s Music Hall itself, and it is played masterfully. It is a huge wood and plaster hall, and it thrives best in lusciously scored music. Here, Rozsa’s sumptuous orchestration fills the hall sonorously, and the surround channels give an amazing sense of the hall’s vast size. In the second movement of the suite, ‘Star of Bethlehem / Adoration of the Magi’, the women of the chorus are introduced, engagingly, from the rear channels. Moving into the aforementioned ‘Rowing of the Galley Slaves’, we come to the highlight of the disc. I don’t want to seem over-the-top here, but if in fifty years, music fans are discussing classic recordings of the early twenty-first century the way we talk now about RCA’s “Living Stereo” series from the 1950’s, this is the track they’ll be talking about. It starts with solo timpani thwacks, sounding through the hall and bouncing back from the back walls. The low winds begin rasping as the strings enter with heaving phrases. Then the brass start stabbing short pungent notes as the textures multiply through all the sections of the orchestra. At its height, it seems like everyone is playing at maximum volume, trying to blow the roof off the hall, but in Telarc’s recording, no sections are lost, no textures get submerged. This has to be heard to be appreciated. If you have a surround-sound system with SACD player, the moment the disc is released run out, get it, and play this track (and the next). If you don’t have such a system, get one or else suck up to a friend who has one. Without even having any players in the rear channels, this track exemplifies what a thrilling experience multichannel listening can be.

After the hectic orgy of sound in the previous movement, the ‘Alleluia’ pulls a quiet, but absolutely stunning maneuver. The strings begin the movement with a high, shimmering sound radiating from the stage out into the hall. After the brutality of the ‘Rowing music’, this sounds like the fluttering of angels’ wings. But then the sound of the strings “grows” from the stage and expands into the rear channels, surrounding the listener. It is, of course, nothing that you could ever hear in a regular live orchestral concert, but it is a brilliant manipulation of the multichannel technology to make this disc a work of art in its own right. This shift in perspective pulls the listener “inside” the music, like a vision that sweeps you up into the sky. The music grows to a glowing peak as more and more voices and instruments join in, then recedes to a gentle closing.

The fifth movement ‘Parade of the Charioteers’ rivals the third movement for visceral sonic thrills, with rich yet crisp brass. Interestingly, the percussion seem carefully placed within the sonic space so that they aren’t too close to the microphones. Although this is normal procedure for Telarc, it is worth pointing out that whether this is an aesthetic choice or not, it prevents the kind of “resonance overload” that can happen in DSD recordings, and in certain seats in many concert halls (I remember a nasty encounter with the trumpet in Sibelius’ ‘Symphony No. 2’ in Pittsburgh’s Heinz Hall a few years back). Cymbals especially, and to some degree, other percussion instruments (or even any loud instrument) can hit a resonance point that makes their sound very startling and almost overwhelming when heard live in concert. DSD recordings have the potential to capture that effect with painful realism. Producer Robert Woods and recording engineer Jack Renner wisely deploy their microphones to avoid that pitfall, capturing impact without bludgeoning the listener. Such skillful recording, combined with the way Kunzel gets an irresistible swagger from his orchestra make this yet another standout track.

In the final movement, ‘Miracle and Finale’, organ is added to the orchestra and chorus to make a truly awesome sound. From bottom to top, organ pedals to tinkling glockenspiel, all is balanced impressively to make a glorious, massive sound. None of this enthusing is meant to give short shrift, though, to the quiet parts of Rozsa’s score. Far from it: Some of the most memorable moments in this suite come in the gorgeously played string interludes in this section. Particular attention must be drawn to the tender warmth of the cellos. Some of these passages bring to mind the ‘Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis’, the great masterpiece for strings by Ralph Vaughan Williams. In sum, though this suite is not as tightly organized as a symphony, it is evocative music that combines narrative thrust with compositional skill. Motifs carry over from one part to the next, and it all stands united as a coherent, independent concert piece. The other suites on this disc may not hold together as well as ‘Ben-Hur’ , but the latter is so impressive, it makes the highest rating for this venture an absolute necessity.

The ‘Quo Vadis’ suite is from an earlier (1951) film, but it shows Rozsa’s style already moving strongly toward the peak he would reach in ‘Ben-Hur’ . Especially effective is the ponderous ‘Ave Caesar March’, which marches down the Appian Way just behind Respighi’s ‘Pines of Rome’. The ‘Assyrian Dance’ brings in some local color for the middle-eastern setting, but it is envisioned through the cubist lens of Stravinsky. One thing I could have done without was the brief “I am the path” voiceover in the ‘Finale’, which very specifically ties the music to the plot and substance of the film in the manner of a soundtrack, but fortunately this approach was not used elsewhere on the disc, leaving the listener free to create his or her own images to go along with the music. All in all, this music is often arresting, though its reach exceeds its grasp, at least in comparison to the potent mastery of the ‘Ben-Hur’ suite. It is worth a minor “tut tut” to Telarc to point out that the chorus frequently sings words in this suite, but no texts are included.

The suite for ‘King of Kings’ (1961) is composed of a greater number of shorter selections, leading to a more disjointed feel than the other two suites. Although it often hits distinctively picturesque stretches, there does seem to be a slight degree of “been there, done that” routine to this score. After all, film composers get type-cast just as much as film actors, and that is bound to prove frustrating in time to one’s creativity. Still, it is grand music, and it’s hard to imagine a more definitive performance than this.

Interestingly, the collaboration between the Cincinnati Pops and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was done in two separate cities several months apart. Fortunately, the skillful deployment of technology by the practiced hands of Telarc’s chief recording engineer Michael Bishop, who created the stereo and surround mixes, keeps this from being problematic. Indeed, the two recordings from two different sonic spaces are blended so perfectly, that I was unable to notice any shift in acoustic perspective whatsoever, which is something that can’t be said about most such ventures. Though such large-scale “overdubbing” has been used for decades, in Bishop’s hands it becomes an art instead of a novelty. The regular Compact Disc layer of this hybrid disc is impressive when compared to other CD recordings, but coming to it after the experience of the multichannel high-resolution program, I found it almost unbearably flat. I clicked back to the 5.1 mix and heaved a sigh of relief. This is how recorded music should sound.

The only sufficient word for this disc is “blockbuster”. This disc is to average recordings what Technicolor was to standard film technology back in the 1950’s. That, combined with a committed performance of some very evocative music, makes this release a must-have. If in the final analysis, no one is going to say that Miklos Rozsa was one of the greatest composers of all time, that doesn’t mean we can’t admit that he was pretty damn good.

Rozsa: Three Choral Suites’ is due for release on April 26th.