CD Review: JOHN WILLIAMS: A LIFE IN MUSIC (London Symphony Orchestra)

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by Tony Frankel on July 21, 2018

in CD-DVD,Music


In a childhood home largely devoid of classical music, it was Walt Disney’s Fantasia and film composer extraordinaire John Williams that got me hooked, as they say, on the classics. It was over forty years ago that Williams recorded Star Wars with the London Symphony Orchestra, which of course made me gnaw into all things LSO, which pushed me deeper into a world of classical music that has become a touchstone in my life. Williams has retained close ties to the sterling band, so it’s apt that a new release includes newly recorded themes from Williams’ most iconic film scores, including “Hedwig’s Theme” from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, recorded here by LSO for the first time.

With such familiar themes, you may wonder if one needs to revisit a collection that includes original arrangements from E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, Superman, etc. Well, from the first blast of the “Main Title,” it’s clear that this isn’t your mom’s Star Wars: crystal clear with precise mixing by Geoff Foster, these mini tone poems are rousing, lush, and impeccable (the “Main Theme” here is the slightly modified version heard in Empire Strikes Back).

When Williams uses strings, celeste, harp, horn, and synthesizer to generate mystery in “Hedwig’s Theme,” it will make anyone fall in love with the art of orchestration: after the tinkling waltz, when the strings come in like a whirlwind and the horn takes over the theme, it’s truly thrilling. I can’t say that this particular track sounds any different than the 2001 studio musicians under Williams baton, but it still brilliantly evokes the mystery and magic of Potter’s world.

However, under the powerful conducting of Gavin Greenaway, take a gander at the “Flying Theme” from E.T: listening to this reminded me of that old Memorex commercial where the speakers create a wind that starts moving objects off a table; it’s a blast that is far more succinct than the “Main Theme” from the original release. This score was the fourth in history to accomplish the feat of winning the Academy Award, Golden Globe, Grammy, and BAFTA. The previous two, Star Wars and Jaws, were also composed by Williams, who remains the only person to have won all awards for the same score more than once. To date, a total of only six scores have won all four awards.

Speaking of Jaws, I had the pleasure of watching the film with live orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl last night, and it allowed me to discover instruments I had never heard before, including a harpsichord! That’s what LSO accomplishes here, where the harp and brass really have a field day, so it’s a shame that the principal players in “The Shark Theme” from Jaws  — and the chorus in “Hymn to the Fallen” from Saving Private Ryan — go uncredited. (Indeed, the booklet, which includes inspirational quotes about Williams from featured members of the orchestra for each track, gives trace amounts of information as to the arrangements — I can only assume some of these were arranged by Williams as end credits.)

One of the things that makes Williams’ scores immediately accessible are the character-specific leitmotifs that are not only used throughout any given film but their many sequels as well. While it’s clear that Williams has been inspired by the classical world’s greats, such as Dvořák, and Jurassic Park‘s theme sounds like the old commerical “See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet,” it’s almost unbelievable that this Los Angeles native — with his searing melodies that can bring tears to your soul — isn’t reincarnated directly from Tchaikovsky. This is especially true with a new arrangement (and world premiere recording) of the theme from Schindler’s List, the soloist of which is now cello, replacing the violin part once played by Itzhak Perlman.

But for real adventure, some of my favorite melodies come from the two other films here: Superman and Hook. The latter is pocked with spacious, sweeping, swarthy themes because Williams wrote about eight songs with lyricist Leslie Bricusse when Spielberg thought of making a musical (“We Don’t Wanna Grow Up” and “When You’re Alone” made it into the film). And the pounding, pulsating, piercing, pride on Superman‘s theme far outshines the original take, which was originally recorded with LSO in 1978. (Bricusse also co-wrote the love theme recorded by Maureen McGovern, “Can You Read My Mind?”) I can’t honestly say that this collection is a necessity, especially given it could have been much more in depth, but it’s such a fantastic product that I can’t give it anything less than a “highly recommended.”

John Williams: A Life in Music
London Symphony Orchestra
Decca Records and Classic FM
10 tracks | 50:20
released May 4, 2018
available at Amazon and iTunes

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