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John WILLIAMS (b. 1932)
John Williams At the Movies
Olympic Fanfare and Theme (1984) [4:32]
The Cowboys (1972) Overture [9:49]
Superman (1978) March [4:30]
Close Encounters of the Third Kind – excerpts (1977) [7:55]
Lincoln (2012) With Malice Toward None [4:19]
Star Wars (1977) Main Title [5:47]
The Empire Strikes Back (1980) Imperial March [3:21]
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) Scherzo for X-Wings [2:23]; The Jedi Steps and Finale [9:44]
JFK (1991) Theme [5:15]
ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (1980) Adventures on Earth [10:42]
1941 (1979) March [4:29]
The Star-Spangled Banner (2014) [2:57]
Christopher Martin (trumpet), Dallas Winds / Jerry Junkin
rec. 2016, Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas, Texas
Reviewed in stereo
REFERENCE RECORDINGS RR-142 SACD [75:43]

The combination of the thrilling virtuosity of the Dallas Winds performing John Williams's memorable film music caught in Reference Recording's superb sound is guaranteed to delight fans of the genre. This is seventy-five minutes revisiting some of the most iconic and memorable film scores of the last forty years. As the liner notes put it so succinctly, "John Williams is a game changer". Probably his most enduring legacy is the sense of making film music – and by extension America – heroic again. For sure, one of Williams's most remarkable skills is the range and diversity of his work but the themes he is most instantly recognised for are the big confident bold Star Wars, Superman¸ Indiana Jones or even Jurassic Park. To undermine my own theory, for each of the above there is a menacing Jaws, sly Witches of Eastwick or witty Catch me if you can, to mention just a handful amongst his 200+ scores for film and TV. With such an enormous catalogue of memorable music any single-disc survey will be missing more than it includes. My only observation regarding this disc is that I wondered if some of the missing themes might not have been particularly well-suited to the wind band format; Jurassic Park, the Devil's Dance from Witches of Eastwick, Hymn to the Fallen (Saving Private Ryan) and, say, Hedwig's theme from Harry Potter I can imagine working particularly well.

But that is not to say that every track here is not also very good indeed. One other observation: these are specifically transcriptions rather than arrangements. That might appear to be a subtle differentiation but it is an important one. It underlines the virtuosity of the Dallas Winds; Williams's notoriously demanding part writing is given pretty much unchanged from original strings to various winds. Of course, there are many collections of this music either under Williams's own baton – the 4-disc Sony "Great Movie Soundtracks and other scores" is an impressive bargain-priced survey – or re-recorded by other conductors and ensembles. There are so many in this latter category that any compare and contrast with this new disc is all but impossible. That said, I would single out the famous Erich Kunzel/Cincinnati/Telarc discs as remarkable recreations of many of these exciting scores in 'stereo-on-steroids' sound. The counter-argument to these Telarc discs was the sound was too manipulated to create their famed "Telarc sound" with prominent bass drums et al. But the result is pretty irresistible for this style of big symphonic film score. Indeed, in direct comparison the new Reference Recording sounds positively objective – which I can imagine would appeal to some collectors. At a push, if I wanted to hear these excerpts performed in isolation, I would still turn to those Kunzel/Telarc recordings for maximum adrenaline.

One of Williams's greatest gifts is to take the simplest musical building blocks and forge from them something utterly memorable but mistakably his own. The Olympic Fanfare and especially the famous Superman March are perfect examples of this, with themes that bore into your consciousness from the very first hearing based on basic triadic melodies. Throughout the disc, Junkin is a reliable interpreter, recreating faithful versions of these much-loved themes. Well-judged tempi balanced a strong basic pulse with a sense of forward momentum.

The earliest excerpt featured on the disc is the Overture to the 1972 western The Cowboys. In many ways this is the least individual and impressive work. For sure, it is an excellent compendium of Western-esque styles but in conforming to those musical stereotypes it does fall into the generic – superbly played though it is.

The range of Williams's mature style is evident in the juxtaposition of two of his most famous scores written the same year, 1977: Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the ubiquitous Star Wars. Both were up for that year's Oscar; the latter won. But in much the same way that the film hinted at mysteries before a final 'big reveal', Williams's score for Close Encounters is built more on mood and atmosphere from which the famous 5-note motif emerges and finally transforms. The transcription here of excerpts by Stephen Bulla is particularly successful, and the sophistication of the Reference Recording engineering in 5.1 SACD sound is very impressive. Subtle instrumental details emerge from the music and the scoring for band works especially well. The band is joined by trumpeter Christopher Martin for the powerful excerpt from Lincoln called With Malice toward none. Martin has had a stellar career as principal trumpet with several of America's most famous orchestras as well as playing this solo on the Original Soundtrack recording of Lincoln. He is a phenomenal player, and this is a quietly intense and impressive piece. There is a clear nod toward Copland's Quiet City but the piece is none the worse for that.

There follows a sequence of four cues from various Star Wars themes. The Main Title suffers a little in comparison to the best full orchestral versions simply because the substituted wind instruments cannot provide the weight of string tone either in the central love theme section or the closing 'hymn'. Conversely, the Imperial March and Scherzo for X wings flourish in the wind-band format. If I were very picky, I would have traded some of the twenty minutes or so of Star Wars excerpts for other pieces from the Williams catalogue – the 9:44 Jedi Steps & Finale is brilliant in its own right both as music and in execution but just a tad too long. The longest single selection on the disc is from another Spielberg blockbuster, E.T. This is called Adventures on Earth but is in effect a combination of the marvellous bicycle ride cue and the valedictory farewell. The former shows the collective virtuosity of the Dallas players and remains a brilliant example of this kind of orchestral scherzo that Williams has made his own.

I am one of those rare people who actually quite liked 1941 on its original release. As ever, the John Williams score – especially the swaggering but slightly off-kilter Main theme/March – was part of that enjoyment. This type of music is perfectly suited to the wind band format, possibly the cue on this disc which is improved by the transcription. The disc closes with Williams's re-working of The Star-spangled banner which probably makes the heart quicken more for Americans than anyone else. Since it does not appear to have been used in any film, its inclusion here is more patriotic than thematic. It is an interesting, harmonically slippery setting that again suits the band very well.

Aficionados of music for band need not hesitate. This is a predictably well played disc of memorable music. Reference Recordings presentation as well as technical recording is very good. The English-only notes are interesting and extensive. I like the fact they list the personnel of the band as well as the names of the various arrangers. The SACD sound is very good (I listened to the stereo layer) with a natural but detailed balance across the whole band, with the percussion especially well caught.

As mentioned before, I do feel this repertoire can sound well with Telarc's 'heightened' recording style which is helped by the thrilling playing of the Cincinnati Symphony under Erich Kunzel. Jerry Junkin on this new disc is a secure and sane interpreter of these scores - but possibly just lacking that last tightening of sinew and flare of nostrils that Kunzel achieves.

Great fun and a worthy reminder of John Williams's remarkable music.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: Dan Morgan




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