CD Review: Great Re-Performances of El Cid and She

By • October 7, 2008

Composers: Miklos Rozsa / Max Steiner
Label: Tadlow / Tribute Film Classics
Suggested Retail Price: $39.95 / $19.95
Grade: A

It’s one thing to gather a bunch of Eastern Europeans, throw them in a studio, dust off a musty old score (or for that matter a new one), and strike the baton. What comes out is more often than not is a mediocre, insincere performance. But when album producers are in it for love instead of money, the results can be pure magic, making ex-Cold War musicians play with the kind of finesse the graced the Hollywood orchestras who made the original recordings magic. Such is the case with the new, powerhouse recordings of the complete scores for Miklos Rozsa’s EL CID and Max Steiner’s SHE, two “lost” soundtracks that could just as well have resided inside of an Indiana Jones-worthy crypt before their glorious re-discovery by Tadlow and Tribute Film Classics- two labels that make these classic scores sing like never before for a new generation of film score fans.

Considered the last “great” score by Miklos Rozsa at the end of an epic run that included the likes of BEN-HUR and KING OF KINGS, 1961’s EL CID was about a warrior whose defense of Spain against the Moors would deify him for a country. As played by the voice of God, Charlton Heston’s Cid was a saint with a sword, which made him a perfect subject for a Hungarian who’d become the go-to guy for biblical scores. Rozsa threw himself into the massive film with relish, researching historical texts and ancient music to deliver a score that would work as both authentic period music, as well as the type of rousing orchestral sound that widescreen audiences demanded. Full of life and melody, Rosza’s music made no apologies for its trumpeting emotion, or the fact that it rarely stopped- two things that drew the ire of a sound editor who truncated Rozsa’s score in a way that would have pleased the Cid’s enemies. Though Rozsa would re-record the music for album presentation, EL CID’s original reels were inexplicably lost, along with the film until it was revived by Martin Scorsese decades later.

While you could get Rosza’s performance on a rare Chapter III CD (with liner notes by yours truly), or hear a decent 60 minute re-performance on Koch Records, these albums barely touched the tip of Rozsa’s 140 minute score for the three hour film- all of which made EL CID perhaps the next most-desired release on the score fan wish list next to Alex North’s complete SPARTACUS. But leave it to album producer James Fitzpatrick to go the tote. Having done an exceptional job producing Rosza’s more intimate PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES for Tadlow, Fitzpatrick has done his homework, pouring over Rozsa’s original sketches and gathering Prague’s finest to record every last CID note, and then some for this stupendous release.

Miked to resemble the original recording, this newly buffed CID rides out in full, gleaming armor, with a massive orchestra in tow to reveal itself as Rosza’s greatest masterwork next to BEN-HUR. Except that film’s biblical majesty is translated now to Spain, with no small amount of heroic aggression to boot. A typically gorgeous love theme sings with unbearable yearning between The Cid and his hard-to-get bride (after all, he kills her father), while Habanera-like rhythms dance with Spanish pomp and circumstance. The brass and percussion on such action cues as “13 Knights” and “The Siege of Valencia” clash with a metal brightness and thunder that bring the musical fight into your living room. And when a deceptively vital Cid rides out to his destiny in “The Legend and Epilogue,” Rosza’s melodic spirituality ascends to the heavens, his organ statement here ranking as the greatest “one off” use of an instrument in film score history. And hearing it anew chills the listener with its holy beauty as ever.

Listening to the complete CID over the luxurious space of three CD’s is an absorbing, almost exhausting lesson in Rozsa’s brand of gloriously thematic music. Just as he turned a nouveauriche Judean into a disciple of Christ, Rozsa again transformed Heston, here from a well-meaning warrior into the stuff of legend. And having it all (with session videos and a DOUBLE INDEMNITY suite to boot) is nothing less than the rapture for a film score fan. Finally, the Cid has touched the soundtrack heavens. If the “real” thing ever showed up, it would probably find its equal standing before it with pride, and passion.

Thankfully, the original 1935 recording of Max Steiner’s SHE has never gone missing, thanks for the folks at Brigham Young University. They’ve helped preserve the music for the pagan high priestess on their archival label’s CD. But the understandably worn original sound can’t really hold an eternal flame to SHE’s terrific new performance on Tribute Film Classics. Following up their excellent re-performances of Bernard Herrmann’s FAHRENHEIT 451 and MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, conductor William Stromberg and producers Anna Bonn and John Morgan give wondrous vitality to Steiner’s work.

Intended as a follow-up to KING KONG by producer Merian C. Cooper and writer Ruth Rose, the first adaptation of the H. Rider Haggard novel offered beauty in place of the beast, with its object of mystery once ruling over a time-lost land (this time located in the Arctic). And having essentially created the modern film score with KONG and its sequel SON OF KONG, Steiner was the logical choice to conjure SHE’s exotic kingdom of Kor and its erotic ruler Hash-A-Mo-Tep. Steiner responded to his new fantasy epic with an “opera without words,” his music’s ethereal beauty and ethnic exoticism conjuring the ageless She Who Must Be Obeyed. And just as fog surrounded Skull Island on his last trip out for Cooper, Steiner gave a thick atmosphere of doomed romance to SHE, with long, melancholy passages and a haunted female chorus capturing the composer’s Wagnerian panache. But that doesn’t mean SHE lacked for action, with bouts of sacrificial percussion that makes one think a big gorilla is about to arrive, an orgy production number worthy of Caligula, royal heraldry, and Egyptian rhythms that tell of Kor’s origins.

It’s all wondrous, swooning stuff that comes alive as never before through the gorgeous playing of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra under Stromberg’s knowing baton. And like Ray Harryhausen, whose dedication has seen SHE get released as a newly colorized dvd, the admiration that this album’s producers have towards the material pays off memorably. Sounding just as good as EL CID, SHE is also awash with luxurious playing that Steiner would no doubt appreciate. Sure the inhabitants of Kor might have been afraid to take a bath in the eternal flame. But thanks to stupendous efforts like these to give new life to classic scores, reviving them east of the border now means that you don’t have to end up with the musical equivalent of RE-ANIMATOR. Instead, these lovely old souls have drunk from the grail of well-produced intentions, both resulting in beautiful-sounding eternal life for the digital generation.

Dip in the fountain of a rejuvenated SHE and EL CID HERE

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