There's a point in James Fitzpatrick's liner notes when the producer of this massive 3-disc set brands himself (humorously, of course) as an idiot for mounting a production of Miklos Rozsa's complete score for what's often termed his last great epic film score. Financially feasible? Probably not. A necessary effort to preserve one of the greatest epic scores by a master craftsman? Absolutely.
Tadlow Music's been producing a string of superb albums featuring films scores restored to their original length, and El Cid (1961) is one of the company's most challenging because it required filling in sections where no script survived, and recording music cut and/or revised for Anthony Mann's blazing Technirama film.
The way this album shouldn't be approached is as some kind of vindication of Rozsa, validating the use of his complete score as the only choice director Mann should've made, instead of editing out or dialing down about 23 mins. of score from the final film edit. As John Mauceri recounts in the featurette on the recent Miriam DVD release, a lot of natural sounds, sparse sound effects, and dense sound montages were used in place of score, and that approach works for the film.
Rozsa's most ardent fans would argue the composer's vision was mucked up – and some of the edits are harsh and abrupt – but by and large, the film's sound mix offers a balance between music and sounds that support the film. El Cid differs from epics made during the early fifties by placing the land almost on equal footing with the film's relatively small band of central characters, and the pacing is more measured, even in action sequences like the wonderful jousting tournament in the film's first half. Part of that stylistic shift is due to Mann's own storytelling technique, which mandates less wall-to-wall music.
It brings up the question of what our expectations are for the epic genre as a whole: should the genre evolve, or should every effort be subject to the conventions of its icons, including an expansive score that nearly matches a film's running time?
Even in later works like Sodom and Gomorrah (1962), Rozsa's approach was to write a lot of music, and that also extended to later films like The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), but one could argue the length of these scores stemmed from the directors' desire to have music be prominent; if one takes the score for Alain Resnais' Providence (1977), one can see Rozsa could easily write a work of intimacy, economy, and conservative length.
In any event, while fans may grip about the lack of a dominant musical force as a whole in the finished film of El Cid, Tadlow's album gives them the opportunity to hear it all, and in a more concert-like form while staying true to the robustness of a classic film score recording.
As Fitzpatrick recounts, the music was recorded with very specific sonic requirements to evoke the grandeur present in vintage recordings, and this digital recording captures the fine detail and performances that one finds in Rozsa's best epic scores – Ben-Hur (1959) in particular – but also the gleaming details of Rozsa's own rerecordings for Decca – Ben-Hur, and in particular his lavish recording of Quo Vadis in the beloved London Phase 4 system. (Those recordings don't just play through the speakers, they boom.)
Tadlow's set features fine performances of the triumphant “Overture” and Rozsa's gorgeous love theme (perhaps his third greatest, after Ben-Hur and Sodom) as well as action cues and some lovely period cues that lend a humanism and gentility to the cold castle surroundings wherein the Cid torments over his faltering relationship and difficult reunion with Chimene.
Perhaps the main concern for the score's less rabid fans is whether an album spanning so much music works, given themes and motifs do reappear often. It's hard to say whether the complete score in the finished film would've been too busy, but there are sequences that benefit from silence and discrete sound effects – something director Mann also exerted in his bloated Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) with Dimitri Tiomkin's eccentric score.
The album does have a strong dramatic drive, and Rozsa's themes, variations, and use of organ and choir collectively capture the powerful events in Mann's film, as well as the passion between the two leading characters. The characters' relationship is really the score's anchor as well as the film, and El Cid should be regarded as an emotionally robust character piece instead of the usual epic buoyed by massive action scenes every 20 mins. It's that core – captured in the exquisite love theme – that makes the score such an engaging work, and why Tadlow's album is a potent listening experience in spite of its daunting length.
Even the montage of alternate and bonus tracks on Disc 3 have their own verve, and provide some marked contrast to the final score cues. Of note is an oboe version of “The Twins,” and the alternate end music that lacked the powerful organ chords, and concludes with the sappy English lyrics that closed the finished film and seemed more designed to plant audience interest in buying the soundtrack album than making a final statement on the film's romantic couple ,bundled with Spain's move towards a unified nation.
A curious bonus to the set is a rerecording of Christopher Palmer's Double Indemnity Suite which somewhat contemporizes the album after the period El Cid cues, but it's enjoyable filler, and it reminds listeners of Rozsa's dominant position in establishing the musical language for the epic and film noir genres.
More intriguing are five videos (in PAL 25 fps Flash .flv format) playable on computers that feature widescreen clips from four complete cue performances – “Battle Preparations,” “Farewell,” “The Twins,” and “Valencia for the Cid” and a lengthy Q&A with Tadlow producer James Fitzpatrick, and conductor Nic Raine, who reconstructed the score with Patrick Russ and Jeff Armajian.
The performances videos give listeners a chance to see the setup Fitzpatrick describes in the album's fat booklet, wherein he employed film score recording techniques using isolated percussion enclaves and ‘the magnificent seven' microphone placements, plus 30 close-mikes to capture groups and specific solos for massive multi-track recording. The best moments involve the violin solos in “Farewell” and “The Twins,” both of which reinforce Rozsa's inimitable writing for strings, and his knack for crafting melodic solos guaranteed to drag tears from hardened listeners.
There's also producer Fitzpatrick head bobbing in the recording booth, while the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus play the ferocious, toe-tapping march in “Valencia for the Cid” in synch with the DVD, plus the radical mood shifts in “Farewell,” wherein a searing violin solo is pushed aside for the march – a vivid cue for the powerful scene where Chimene has no choice but to surrender the Cid to his legion of followers after a night of outstanding whoopee.
Also part of the CD-ROM content are 18 stills from the recording stage and final mixing room, plus intros by Martin Scorsese and Juliet Rozsa from the fat 28-page booklet. Tadlow's gamble is unfortunately a limited release, but it's worth snapping up a copy of this fine album, which will undoubtedly become as treasured as Rozsa's Phase 4 recordings, and be savoured like fine wine.
Note: This title is also available as a non-limited 2-disc edition from Silva Screen.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan