By Doug Raynes

Photo: Volker Hannemann

Less than a year had gone by since Tadlow Music’s acclaimed recording of Miklós Rózsa’s film score Sodom and Gomorrah for Prometheus Records but on Good Friday 25 March 2016, Nic Raine raised his baton once again at Smecky Studios as he prepared to conduct the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra (CPPO) for another recording of a Rózsa score in complete form, with Nic prefacing the first cue and enthusing the orchestra with the words “The Thief of Bagdad”; two hundred minutes of wonderful music”. He may have inflated the total amount of music (the double CD is expected to be about 130 minutes) but in using the epithet “wonderful” he was speaking on behalf of many who consider the score to be one of the composer’s finest achievements and which has variously been described as not only wonderful but lyrical, rich, magical, inventive, colourful and exotic. In fact, perfectly in keeping with Alexander Korda’s lavish Arabian Nights fantasy which was Rózsa’s most prestigious film score at the time of release in 1940.

Alongside Nic and producer James Fitzpatrick, were the welcoming familiar faces from previous recording sessions of production assistant/interpreter Stanja Vomackova and recording engineer Jan Holzner. It was also a pleasure to meet up again with score reconstruction expert Leigh Phillips and to meet his partner and assistant Bex Thomas for the first time. Attending the sessions at James’ invitation alongside myself was Rozsa Society Webmaster Hank Verryt who had travelled to Prague from the Netherlands. It was also good to meet again with invitees, Volker Hannemann, Dorothee Hannemann and Harald Bayer who had all journeyed from Germany and who had last visited Prague in September 2015 for the CPPO concert “Epic Hollywood: The Film Music of Miklós Rózsa” (subsequently released on a 2-disc CD by Tadlow Music). Most of us were there for the Friday, Saturday and Sunday sessions but none of us were able to stay for the Monday which had been booked for recording some of the choral passages.

Hank Verryt, Volker Hannemann, Nic Raine, Doug Raynes
Photo: Volker Hannemann

With some exceptions, the recording followed the score chronologically, more so than had been done in the past on previous Rózsa recordings at Smecky, or so it seemed to me. The opening fanfare took several takes before Nic and James were satisfied and then the orchestra was straight into the rousing main title. They had barely got going when the orchestra suddenly stopped playing…followed by complete silence. For a moment I thought something had gone wrong but, in fact, Nic was timing the period allotted at that point in the cue for the unaccompanied chorus, which along with all the other vocals were scheduled to be recorded later. As in previous sessions, after a take James would frequently make comments over the studio speakers, often asking for a specific instrument(s) to be played louder; “more dynamics on trumpets”, “more tom-tom”, “a little more oboe” or what was very enigmatic to me during the cue ‘Bagdad Harbour’, “watch out for bar 41!”

Photo: Volker Hannemann

The film itself runs for 106 minutes and contains almost wall to wall music; every note of which was being recorded – much of it for the first time. Additionally, what makes this new recording surprising and especially welcome, is the inclusion of the numerous unused music cues and alternatives; many of which are described in detail by Richard H Bush in his article “Thief of Bagdad: The Musical?” on this website. One surprise was finding that ‘The Flying Horse’ had three versions; the film version and two alternatives. These are not minor changes but obviously involved a major re-think on how the scene should be scored, both alternatives being more dramatic than that ultimately used in the film. It would have been most interesting to have known whether it was Rózsa or the studio who had decided to try these three different approaches to score the scene and in making the final decision on which cue to use. Many of the unused cues were originally intended as songs within the film and one or two of these were recorded as orchestral-only alternatives. As he had done with Sodom and Gomorrah Leigh had orchestrated a special version of ‘The Love of the Princess’ with concertmaster Lucie Svehlova on solo violin.

Lucie Svehlova
Photo: Volker Hannemann

The players clearly seemed to be enjoying themselves during sessions. As with the previous recordings I had attended, players tended to come and go; one instrumentalist does not necessarily come in for every session. The CPPO is a contract orchestra and instrumentalists are hired on a per-session basis. There is no “permanent” roster as there would be for, say, the Czech Philharmonic. No doubt there is a core group of players that keep being asked back and I recognized some players from the El Cid sessions back in 2008 but the turnover between sessions is not surprising. Joseph Pokluda, who I believe does the hiring, may ask violinist A who says, “I can do all of Monday and the Tuesday afternoon session, but Tuesday morning I’m rehearsing with the Prague Chamber Orchestra and I teach all day on Wednesday.” So he hires B for Tuesday and Wednesday morning and C for Wednesday afternoon. There is no doubt a large talent pool in Prague and the community of musicians probably all know each other rather well. Thus there is a strong camaraderie even though they come and go.

Leigh was on hand throughout in the control room alongside James Fitzpatrick listening to the orchestra. Leigh explained to me that it had been a very complex score to reconstruct – more so than the epics he had previously worked on; Quo Vadis and Sodom and Gomorrah where the structure included many repeat lines whereas The Thief of Bagdad had far more variation not just in total but within individual cues. He also encountered complications in establishing the correct orchestration where there were differences in the music between Rózsa’s original sketches, the film soundtrack, and the music & effects track.

Leigh Phillips, Harald Bayer, Doug Raynes
Photo: Volker Hannemann

Having attended previous sessions at Smecky, the recording procedure has become familiar to me but it was the first time for my four colleagues who clearly found it an enlightening and enjoyable experience. To quote Hank Verryt: “I’m not a musician nor do I read music but after more than 50 years of listening to virtually everything that has been recorded from this score I can honestly say that in my opinion, apart from being the most complete, this is to be the most efficiently played and energetic rendition to date. Sitting on the edge of the playing area is not something I have experienced before. It's breathtakingly loud at times and all around you. It’s like stereophonic plus. It's great.”

So much of the music from The Thief of Bagdad has either never been heard or cannot be heard clearly within the compressed mono sound of the film soundtrack, so this recording will be a revelation when it is released later this year on Prometheus Records.

Doug Raynes, Jan Holtzer, Hank Verryt, Harald Bayer, Nic Raine, James Fitzpatrick, Dorothee Hannemann (behind James), Volker Hannemann, Bex Thomas, Leigh Phillips. Photo: J. Fitzpatrick

March 26th marked Juliet Rózsa’s birthday and this photograph was taken at Smecky during the sessions as a birthday greeting to her.


Various videos of the sessions released by James Fitzpatrick are linked below. Click the HD for quality.
From the Control Room
From the Horn section
A raw sample from the sessions
Another cue in the making
From the Bass section
As heard amongst the violins
A Pianists perspective

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