When Miklos Rozsa died last month at age 88, he left a remarkable body of work, consisting of more than 40 concert pieces of various kinds and around 90 film scores.
It's rare for a composer to enjoy equal success in both areas. And while I'm sure Rozsa wouldn't have minded a higher profile away from the movies, over the course of a lengthy career he came closer than most, maintaining a high level of artistry in each.That is borne out by the above three issues, spanning virtually his entire career, from his student days in Leipzig to his final years in Hollywood. Indeed it was Rozsa's Op. 2 that led to his being signed, at age 20, by the publishing house of Breitkopf & Haertel, and they remained his publishers to the end.
Hearing some of those early pieces one is struck by two things: how early the familiar Rozsa voice emerged and how, no matter what the outside influences, they all continued to come together in the same distinctive style.
Thus the openly Hungarian-flavored chamber works of his youth, such as the "Variations on a Hungarian Peasant Song" and "North Hungarian Peasant Songs and Dances," are unmistakably the work of the same man who later went on to produce not only the music for all those MGM historical epics of the '50s and '60s but the Sonata for Solo Violin from 1986, a piece of almost Bachian scope.
His music for "Ivanhoe," for example, though it partakes of Norman, Jewish and other historical source material (including a song attributed to Richard the Lionheart), speaks with the same voice as his music for "Ben-Hur," which calls to mind a very different historical context.
No wonder even some of the legitimate concert works, such as the Violin Concerto (written for Heifetz), have found their way to films, in that case "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes." I can still remember Rozsa's surprise when I told him I had first heard portions of his early "Theme, Variations and Finale" on such early-'50s TV shows as "Superman" and "Rocky Jones." He wasn't aware it was being used for that purpose.
Nonetheless it is the film scores themselves that are the works he is most likely to be remembered by. For not only was he usually assigned the studios' most prestigious projects, but his own artistry frequently made them finer still.
"Ivanhoe" is a case in point. As with "Quo Vadis" the year before, Rozsa's score lent this 1952 adaptation of Walter Scott a depth and dimension the film itself did not always possess. (In "Knights of the Round Table" two years later the gap was even more pronounced.)
Under Bruce Broughton's heroically expansive direction, that depth is likewise apparent on the above-listed Intrada CD, which offers more than an hour of music from the film. The cue-by-cue sequencing may not be to everyone's taste, but I admire the care and scholarship that have gone into this enterprise, as well as stereo sound that compensates for a performance a bit less impactive than Rozsa's own (on the soundtrack).
I also find the music itself, with its occasional eerie dissonances, more involving than something like the Symphony in Three Movements, first composed in 1930 and resurrected, minus its missing scherzo, in 1993.
Nevertheless this is also an impressive score, both for its native romantic impulse and the way the broodingly mysterious, bitonal opening actually prefigures the "Ivanhoe" music. Best, I think, is the meditative middle movement, almost Bartokian in its nocturnal unease (though listen for the "Lust for Life"-type harmonic resolutions), followed by the Kodalyian verve of the finale.
Conductor James Sedares does well by this and the Ravel-like variations on the French folksong "The Vintner's Daughter," catching their virility and color.
Similarly the young Isabella Lippi captures the bittersweet Hungarian flavor of the early violin pieces with grace and virtuosity. The Op. 7 Duo in particular comes in for a reading of penetration and incisiveness (the lively second movement giving us a taste of what the Symphony's scherzo must have been like), and the Op. 40 Sonata is, if anything, even stronger, especially the harmonically adventurous first movement.