26 May

Miklos Rozsa: Chosen Path of a Double Life

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This autumn of 2012 is turning out to be most productive and rewarding for all who admire the composing talents of the Hungarian-born Miklos Rozsa and his two chosen paths of composition. Firstly, both the film scores QUO VADIS and THE RED HOUSE are scheduled for release at the end of October on respectively, the Prometheus and Intrada labels; in addition, no less than eight of his concert works are set to appear on three other discs devoted to his music. Both the film scores have been greatly anticipated as neither have been recorded complete before; QUO VADIS has been best represented up to now by a forty minute disc of highlights with the composer conducting the RPO (recorded in 1977 at the much missed Kingsway Hall in London), and only short suites from THE RED HOUSE have previously appeared, the last conducted by the versatile Charles Gerhardt with his famed National Philharmonic on one of the "Classic Film Score" series, also from the ‘seventies.

In fact it was this very recording that gave American composer/orchestrator Kevin Kaska the desire to one day present this fine RH score complete on disc, and he set about preparing the many scored scenes for just such an occasion. This latest Intrada CD is now just that, his dream come true, with the equal enthusiasms of film expert and record promoter Paul Talkington, conductor Allan Wilson, and the boss of Intrada Records, Doug Fake. The results of this are fantastic: revelatory and rich in musical ideas, all heightened by Rozsa’s use of the unique-sounding theremin, which he had first used so effectively in his two Oscar nominees from 1945, SPELLBOUND and THE LOST WEEKEND, the first of which gained him his first statuette for the Hitchcock melodrama. The seldom shown RED HOUSE is a dark and rather confusing tale starring Edward G. Robinson as a very enigmatic character living near the woods which conceal a grisly secret he tries to keep hidden away from other visitors. The score highlights the intrigue and disturbing madnesses of the key figure, and the theremin, weirdly wailing in many scenes, heightens the suspense.

I can report, having been fortunate enough to attend the sessions in Glasgow in January 2011, that this 2-CD set (Intrada MAF 7122) – produced by Kaska – will be a true highlight in the ever-increasing Rozsa discography. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra was a joy to listen to under the expert control of Allan Wilson. Another highlight without a doubt will be the complete QUO VADIS score also on 2 CDs (Prometheus, PROX PCD172) – over sixty years since the film was released – as this marked Rozsa’s initial encounter with 1st century Roman antiquity (eight years later leading up to his supreme masterpiece, BEN-HUR). The musical canvas he painted for QV after many months of research was utterly effective and brilliant – even by his high standards of movie scoring. Many readers will have seen this flawed epic and be familiar with the vivid scenes depicted in and around the Forum Romanum and arenas of degradation and slaughter, as well as the love tangles between Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor) and Lygia (Deborah Kerr). Peter Ustinov as the crazed Nero was the other main protagonist, and he overacted quite delightfully! There are so many musical sequences one can hear now for the first time as they were either completely omitted from the soundtrack or dubbed so poorly as to make them inaudible. These Prague sessions were produced in March this year by the scrupulously meticulous James Fitzpatrick, assisted by Rozsa expert Frank K. deWald and orchestrator Leigh Phillips who were both also in the control room during sessions. James has worked with his Czech musicians at Smecky studios over many years, and they certainly play masterfully for him. Sitting amongst them listening to this latest recreation was a rare privilege and a wondrous experience for me. The City of Prague Philhamonic was ably conducted by the always highly discerning Nic Raine, whose interpretation of an earlier Rozsa epic on the same label (EL CID) has been rightly much praised.

As if these two additions were not enough, Chandos have just released Volume 3 in their series of complete Rozsa orchestral works (CHAN 10738) and it is arguably the most welcome so far, containing a veritable "greatest hits" from the composer’s 45 opus works. The ‘Theme, Variations and Finale’ from 1933 has remained one of his most admired and performed orchestral showcases, and is here played in its original uncut version prior to a later revision. This is the premiere recording of this version. It is a superb set of contrasting variations on an original theme, ending with a furious and dance-like Finale. The ‘Concerto for Strings’ of 1943 is yet another brilliant conception: hard-hitting, strident and darkly brooding. This piece comes closest to those brutally jagged gangster and film noirs movies he scored later in the ‘forties (BRUTE FORCE, THE KILLERS, CRISS CROSS, THE NAKED CITY). Rozsa later quipped that he was at that time considered as the musical Al Capone! The other work on this fine CD is his Violin Concerto he wrote for Jascha Heifetz in 1953, which has become an oft-played virtuoso showcase; this latest version features the young, talented Jennifer Pike, who shows she has encompassed the Rozsa Hungarian folk idiom completely, with an interpretation full of power and flowing mastery. So, three great works played by the BBC Philharmonic under Rumon Gamba, who has made a unique name for himself recording much varied and little-heard repertoire.

Mention must also be made of a recent limited edition on the Kritzerland label containing the original tracks in very good sound of Rozsa’s THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS, another ‘forties score hardly remembered these days. Producer Bruce Kimmel had located these acetates in the Paramount vaults, and the resulting disc is well worth a listen. Also just reissued is a suite fashioned by Rozsa from some of those gangster films I previously alluded to, entitled (not by the composer) "Backgrounds to Violence". This was originally from a US Decca LP, as was the coupling here of three concert works from another Decca LP (in mono sound), the whole CD composer conducted: (Disques Cinemusique, DCM 141). Lastly, we can expect soon the latest volume in the ongoing Naxos/ Rozsa series; this – the fifth devoted to his concert music – has his two String Quartets plus the Op 1 String Trio from 1929, all played by the Tippet Quartet. The Trio, written as a student, was his first ever composition to be accepted by his now long time publishers, Breitkopf and Haertel. Rozsa was very proud of this, and tells of when he had propped up the score at the end of his bed, so that he could awaken the next morning and proudly stare at it afresh! It is a most assured composition from one so young, and well worth getting to know.

What a long way he progressed and developed since those early days; forty plus more concert works, nearly a hundred film scores (and three Oscars won from countless nominations), a teaching post in Los Angeles for many years, conducting at concerts in various countries as well as on numerous recordings, and an international reputation both highly successful as well as much revered. His autobiography, "Double Life" nicely sums up his dual composing roles in his two chosen musical areas, and so we now welcome these new CD releases which underline his importance as a 20th century master figure, as well as show just how successful he became in these chosen paths.

(Alan Hamer represents the MIKLOS ROZSA SOCIETY in the UK and Europe; contact him at or visit the Society website at miklosrozsa.org )

This article first appeared in Journal Into Melody, issue 194 December 2012

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About Geoff 123
Geoff Leonard was born in Bristol. He spent much of his working career in banking but became an independent record producer in the early nineties, specialising in the works of John Barry and British TV theme compilations.
He also wrote liner notes for many soundtrack albums, including those by John Barry, Roy Budd, Ron Grainer, Maurice Jarre and Johnny Harris. He co-wrote two biographies of John Barry in 1998 and 2008, and is currently working on a biography of singer, actor, producer Adam Faith.
He joined the Internet Movie Data-base (www.imdb.com) as a data-manager in 2001 and looked after biographies, composers and the music-department, amongst other tasks. He retired after nine years loyal service in order to continue writing.