Ben-Hur by Miklos Rozsa

Miklos Rozsa - Ben-Hur soundtrack CD cover This is the original recording as composed and conducted by Miklos Rozsa but so beautifully restored and so powerful to begin with with the listener won't be aware that this was recorded in 1959. This epic has as many fanfares as a John Williams Star Wars soundtrack (substituting Chariots for Pod Races and Imperial Rome for Galactic Empires, both with their Imperial Marches), and is clearly the forerunner in story and stature terms for Hans Zimmer's more recent Gladiator.

The recording reviewed here and itemised in the track listing below is the single CD version issued a few years ago. More recently this has been replaced with a fuller version on two CDs with more extended versions of tracks taken from Miklos Rozsa's original recordings and a number of "out-takes" (i.e. music created for scenes which were not included in the final edit of the released film). The tracks play continuously one after the other, telling the story of Judah Ben-Hur whose life seems to criss-cross that of Jesus Christ (though in more serious tones than "The Life of Brian").

The Overture sets the scene and introduces the main themes, especially the warmly heroic Ben-Hur theme. Then we witness the birth of Christ, with its own delicate theme, acting as a Prologue to the main story set a few decades later. Prelude is a fanfare introducing us to the might of Rome, while Ring for Freedom with its Vaughan-Williams style strings introduces us to Judah's love for Ester whom he frees from service to his family. Then along comes the pomp of Gratus, the new Governor of Jerusalem, reminding us of the relentless conquests of Rome. At the end of this sequence Ben-Hur becomes little more than a slave to this empire, struggling through the desert suffering from thirst, when the Christ theme returns as the now adult Jesus gives him water in The Prince of Peace.

A continuous sequence of tracks then tell the story of Ben-Hur's stint as a Galley Slave, with its relentless rowing theme on trombones and low strings. This theme underpins the action as a naval battle ensues against pirates, during which Ben-Hur saves the ship's commander and gains his freedom. With Victory Parade they return to Rome as heroes and the next few tracks depict life there, where Ben-Hur becomes a "formula one" chariot driver and including some lighter dance music for a party. Returning to Jerusalem, Ben-Hur finds that his mother and sister have apparently died, whereupon back in Rome he races against and beats his enemy who dies in the race. This chariot race is one of the key scenes in the movie, used in all the movie's publicity posters, and introduced by a fanfare followed by the thrilling march Parade of the Charioteers.

Learning the truth about his mother and sister, he visits and frees them from a leper colony in Valley of the Lepers. Back in Jerusalem he encounters Christ again, recognising him as the man who gave him water in the desert, and helps him to carry his wooden cross. Later, seeing Christ crucified, his relatives are miraculously cured of their disease. Perhaps the whole story is a little contrived but whatever your religious persuasion, this is powerful story telling and demands music to match. By the time this film was made, Rozsa was firmly established as the number one epic composer for MGM, and he deservedly won his third oscar for his work which is well preserved on this CD release.

This is an excellent collector's item, and the extended double-CD version is available from: Amazon.co.uk in the UK, or Amazon.com in the US.

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