Music

Ben-Hur (Miklos Rozsa) [Tadlow Re-Recording] – Film Score Review

Anthony Aguilar reviews the new original recording of the classic Ben-Hur...

Composer: Miklós Rózsa
Label: Tadlow Music
Tracks: 39
Running time: 157 minutes

After completely listening through Miklós Rózsa’s masterful score for Ben-Hur, finding the words with which to adequately describe and praise such music can be a stunningly difficult task. Indeed, by comparison all manner of critical prose seems utterly banal no matter the recording: be it the original in the film, Rózsa’s own re-recordings from the ‘70s, or this new recording from Tadlow Records.

Rózsa composed a masterpiece for the ages, a score of unique power and sublime beauty that has been oft imitated, yet never surpassed. Its place in history has been cemented and well-documented through many academic publications and scholarly analyses as well as countless concerts and recordings of all or select portions of the score through the years. Many orchestras under the batons of quite a few conductors have attempted to capture the spirit of the original composition both live in concert and in the recording studio. But very few have done so with as much power, grace, and outstanding attention to detail as this excellent new re-recording of the complete score from The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra & Choir under the baton of Nic Raine and the production skills of James Fitzpatrick.

Re-recordings of various classic scores are available in copious amounts these days, whether they be the full score or various cues/suites. No matter the scope, any re-recordings need to stand out from the crowd in some way to justify their existence. Fortunately, this new recording of Ben-Hur stands out in many positive ways and for all the right reasons. This particular re-recording contains the complete score spread across two discs. There are no alternates or variants here, just a straight-forward performance from beginning to end.

Receiving their world premiere in this set are a few cues that were written by Rózsa to accompany specific scenes yet for one reason or another were never recorded. “Silent Farewell” (Disc 1, track 13), for instance, is a never-before-recorded cue that gives us a more action-oriented, strained development of the love theme’s A-phrase that never fully resolves.  These extra cues do not amount to much in the way of new content, but do help to further develop certain themes.

One of the main goals with this re-recording was to present the score as Rózsa would have wanted. From the very beginning, with the reconstruction of the score by the legendary Leigh Phillips to the recording and orchestra, painstaking care was taken to make this recording as authentic as possible, and it shows in the end result. The instrumentation seems identical to the original. Great care has been taken to maintain intended phrasing and volume, preserving the original epic sound of the music.

Speaking of epic, to describe this recording merely as such would be something of an understatement. The listener should expect to be hit with in-your-face massive brass and strings from the get-go with the now-iconic ‘Anno Domini’ motif. There are many such loud, epic moments in the score, and they are all rendered enthusiastically with real power and gusto by the orchestral players. One of the best such sequences guaranteed to send chills down the spine comes during the battle scene (Disc 1, Track 17). Multiple themes and motifs battle each other over complex, offbeat rhythms leading to a spectacular, heroic statement of Judah’s theme.

This bombastic, complex, hectic sequence must surely be a challenge for any orchestra to play through, yet the City of Prague Philharmonic makes it seem effortless. This was already one of the most exciting action cues to ever grace a film, but adding in the illuminating, crystal-clear sound quality and the breathless, powerful performance by the orchestra takes it to another level altogether. Of the many loud, bombastic marches throughout the score, perhaps none is as thrilling as the ‘Parade of the Charioteers’ (Disc 2, Track 13). One of Rózsa’s most popular compositions, the brass section hits every note with precision, rendering this a truly thrilling recording of the audacious march.

The Christ theme is one of the rarer components of Rózsa’s score, given that the character only personally appears in a select few scenes. Rarer still are moments where said theme rises to become as bombastic and epic as the other themes in the score. One of the key moments to get right in any re-recording of Ben-Hur is ‘The Miracle / Finale’ (Disc 2, Track 20). Nearly the full force of the orchestra breaks out into the most joyous, exuberant statement of the Christ theme.

This is followed at the end by a steadily rising combination of Miriam’s theme and the love theme, concluding with the orchestra being joined by the full choir. Again, the orchestra performs these sections flawlessly. The recording is again nearly perfect, with neither the choir nor any one section of the orchestra drowning out the other in a competition for volume.

The orchestra and recording shines not only in the bombastic, epic moments, but also in the quieter, more contemplative moments of beauty. Some of the best moments of the score arise when Rózsa writes for solo instruments. The ‘Esther’ cue (Disc 1, Track 7) introduces the love theme proper with a tender performance on strings, which then passes to a beautiful refrain from a solo oboe before returning to strings and then finally to solo clarinet and strings. The restraint shown here sandwiched in between all the bombast is venerable.

The following cue ‘Love Theme’ sees a solemn duet for flute and harp before the strings take over, and then ‘Ring for Freedom’ further develops the love theme on violin, which is joined by a gorgeous cello performance. Again, the recording during these quieter moments is nothing short of stunning. The clarity of every solo instrument and the passion of each performance makes for a dazzlingly beautiful listening experience. The instruments are mixed perfectly, such that you can clearly hear and separate out the notes of each performance. None of the soloists are mixed too loudly or softly, in turn providing perfect balance to each other.

One of the more moving moments both in the film and on album comes in the scene where Judah first meets Christ. When a heavily parched Judah is prevented from drinking water from a well by a cruel guard, the faceless Christ steps in and gives Judah a drink. For this scene, Rózsa stripped out all the bombast for a rather spare, heavenly setting of the Christ theme performed by just a few instruments over light tremolo strings.

A very warm, optimistic performance of Judah’s theme follows before a boisterous, full-throated horn statement of the Christ theme leads into the conclusion of the track. According to FSM’s notes on this cue, the tremolo strings in the Christ theme are joined by celesta, vibraphone, organ, trombones, and bassoons. It is a testament to both the performance and the recording that the listener can distinctly hear each of those instruments even when some are playing in tandem.

Overall, this new recording of Miklós Rózsa’s score for Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra & Choir and conducted by Nic Raine, is one of the most stunning, exhilarating film music releases of the year. While a few noteworthy moments have been covered in this review, this release is filled to the brim with many other stunning moments of power and beauty that must be heard to be believed. The sound quality and resulting clarity is perhaps the biggest net gain over all other recordings.

Another positive is that this is also one of the few releases to contain the entire score as written for the film, including some cues that have never before been recorded. The performance from the orchestra and choir is utterly magnificent on all fronts. Everybody involved, from Leigh Phillips to producer James Fitzpatrick, deserves enormous credit for such a stunning achievement. While nothing can improve upon the original composition, Tadlow Records may have just given us the most dazzling way to listen to Miklós Rózsa’s masterpiece in this modern age.

Ben-Hur: The Re-Recording is now available from Tadlow Records.

3 comments

  1. The review is odd in that it’s more unstinting hagiography than balanced critique while, at the same time, the author seems not to understand that the noun ”bombast,“ as well as its adjectival counterpart, are not, and cannot be words of praise. It serves to bring his all his comments into question.

    My own feelings about the recording is that it‘s a bit of a disappointment. There are some splendid things in it, and it was clearly a labor of love, but some of the music as played here is simply…wrong. Without going into detail, there are points where emphases are incorrect and misplaced, keys are wrong, things are missing (such as the brief, wordless chorus over the motiv for the Great Temple in the film’s prologue), and I dispute the writer’s assertion that the recording “contains the complete score spread across two discs. There are no alternates or variants here, just a straight-forward performance from beginning to end.” This is really nothing less than the alternative-universe “Ben-Hur,” often straying considerably from what was used in the film (one great addition is Rozsa’s thrilling original entr’acte, which is far surperior to the one used in the film, which was essentially just a scaled-down version of the film’s overture).

    While I’m delighted to hear cues and passages never before recorded, there are many places in this recording where the pacing seems to be hewing to a self-conscious deliberateness reflecting more than just slower tempi. I love Rozsa’s music, and have loved all of Tadlow and Prometheus/Tadlow’s CPPO recordings, but this one leaves me just a bit flat.

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    1. Hi there! Thank you for reading my review and for your thoughtful reply. I am truly sorry that you could not find enjoyment in this re-recording, or at least not as much as I and so many others have. However, your opinion is your opinion and to it you are certainly entitled, as I am to mine. I encourage you to read the liner notes from the physical release to see what they were going for with this re-recording. They go into much more detail than I could here.

      Regarding my use of the word ‘bombast’ “and its adjectival counterpart” you are correct in one sense. Technically, the word does not “and can not” in any way apply to music at all, since it only applies to speech. While the word by technical definition refers to loud, pretentious speech coupled with a lack of substance (so ‘cannot be words of praise’ even though I only used it as a descriptor not outright praise), when used in relation to film music most reviewers I have read use it simply as a reference to very large, loud music with big brass, fast-paced rhythms, loud Hollywood strings, etc… In that sense it is a neutral descriptor, as I used it here. Is it an example of the constantly developing language and humanity’s increasing penchant for colloquially altering the definition of words to suit their current needs? Perhaps. Just know in what sense I and many others use the term.

      Once again, thank you for reading. I really do appreciate your opinion and feedback and will use it to improve my own writing… which some might call BOMBASTIC 🙂

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    2. I actually agree with the above, especially the “self-conscious deliberateness” remark, which I think is spot on. I find the approach heavy-footed, lacking any real subtlety, and I’ve had trouble getting through the whole disc. I don’t want to bash what is obviously a labor of love, but one has to call it as one sees it. I would love to have praised this with the enthusiasm of Mr. Aguilar, and I certainly at least encourage everyone to buy it, since it’s obviously affording many people a lot of pleasure and the producers deserve good returns for their efforts. I however will be sticking with the original as found on the Film Score Monthly 5-disc set.

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