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John WILLIAMS (b. 1932)
John Williams in Vienna
The flight to Neverland (Hook) [5:15]
Close Encounters of the Third Kind - excerpts [7:47]
Devil's Dance* (The Witches of Eastwick) [5:51]
Adventures on Earth (E.T. - the Extra-terrestrial) [10:09]
Jurassic Park - Theme [6:03]
Dartmoor 1912 (Warhorse) [6:37]
Out to sea & The shark cage fugue (Jaws) [5:08]
Marion's Theme (Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark) [4:02]
Main Title (Star Wars: A New Hope) [6:25]
The rebellion is reborn (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) [4:34]
Luke & Leia (Star Wars: Return of the Jedi) [4:06]
The Imperial March (Star Wars: The Empire strikes back) [3:21]
Raider's March* ((Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark) [5:45]
John Williams conducting The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Anne-Sophie Mutter* (violin)
rec. live, January 2020, Goldener Saal der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Vienna
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 483 6373 [75:01]

Clearly the concert at which this disc was recorded was something of an "event". The slightly gushing, gossip-columny liner note tells as much as do the several photographs taken at it which adorn the accompanying booklet. To be honest, it was an event combining the remarkable talents of - arguably - the world's most famous living film music composer and one of the great orchestras. I am not clear if this was the first time that John Williams had conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in concert but it is certainly the first time their association has been released on commercial CD.

The liner mentions that the concert lasted nearly three hours which implies that at least one other disc's worth of music is safely in the can. John Williams is remarkable on many levels, not least that at 87 years old he has the energy and dynamism to lead a concert such as this. His music has penetrated the collective consciousness of the world in the way that few other living "serious" composers' music has. The opening seconds of Star Wars or Jaws have become a musical shorthand for heroics or menace to name but two. Every orchestra around the world from school wind band to the finest of the fine have played his music. Quite how familiar the Vienna Philharmonic are collectively with these often demanding scores is not clear but the results on this seventy five minute survey are predictably impressive and enjoyably opulent.

All I would say is that it is not quite as "the best ever" as some reviews elsewhere would imply. The simple reason for that is that this music has been recorded by some of the finest ensembles using the best technology available so the competition is pretty ferocious. Not least from John Williams himself whether conducting orchestras steeped in the idiom such as his own Boston Pops or studio ensembles such as Recording Art Orchestra of LA. Similarly, Telarc made something of a speciality recording film scores in spectacular sound from Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops. Their first venture - called Star Tracks released around 1984 - included seven of the excerpts offered here and still sounds quite thrilling.

So rather than worrying about whether Williams in Vienna is better than Williams in Boston, it is probably more useful to treat this much as one does the Vienna New Year's Day performances - not the last or only word in this repertoire but instead a document of a thoroughly enjoyable musical occasion. One thing that is clear across this programme, Williams conducts performances that are generally broader and slower than his previous recordings. Whether this is because he was revelling in the richness of the VPO or it was because his inner metronome ticks to a slower beat these days is not clear. Also, the sharp pointing of accents and rhythms is less defined in Vienna than elsewhere. The slower basic tempi I can happily embrace, the slight lessening of rhythmic tightness bothers me a little bit more. But make no mistake, the VPO are not in the slightest 'slack' just upholstered in a way others are not.

When a composer has as vast a catalogue of famous scores as Williams, a single disc will be as much about what is missing as what is included. Most of the obvious 'hits' are here although surprisingly for example no Superman, Harry Potter or Schindler's List. The latter all the more surprising given that superstar violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter was on hand. A track saved for Volume 2 I assume. Possibly, I would have left out one of the four Star Wars tracks (albeit from different films in the series) for volume two as well. The disc opens with a relative rarity - The Flight to Neverland from Hook. When listening to a lot of John Williams you realise he is able to re-imagine certain musical styles for different films. So this Flight is very much the musical cousin of his other orchestral scherzi such as Here they come [Star Wars] The Bicycle Chase [ET] or The Mine Car Chase [Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. This makes for a good curtain raiser and displays immediately the qualities of the disc. The Vienna Philharmonic are on good and engaged form with the brass especially sounding suitably resplendent. DG's engineering is also very good - I imagine based on years of capturing live events such as the New Year's Day concerts. The liner mentions the enthusiastic and vociferous audience - DG have managed to fillet out any extraneous sounds at all. I assume all the endings were recorded in rehearsal as there is no applause although the acoustic does seem to become suddenly rather more cavernous than during the main body of the performances.

There is some highlighting of individual parts but since film scores are rarely recorded or conceived for concert hall balances this is not inappropriate. The only time I was bothered by the balance was the very prominent solo violin of Anne-Sophie Mutter in The Devil's Dance from The Witches of Eastwick. All the other excerpted arrangements on the disc I am pretty sure I have heard before but this seems to be a new version creating a concertante piece showing off Ms Mutter's remarkable skill. She plays it with an attack and near ferocity that quite changes the mood of the original work. After all this was a film with Jack Nicholson at his anarchic best as a charismatically seductive Devil. The original music cue retains this gleeful and indeed playful quality - something Mutter rather steamrollers through. Versions of the orchestra-only original cue from Williams in Boston on Philips or indeed Mauceri with his Hollywood Bowl Orchestra on the same label capture the original spirit better. That said, the actual playing from Mutter is pretty astounding and it is always interesting to hear familiar music given an unfamiliar take.

As mentioned before, listening to any sequence of Williams' work is to be amazed at the number of memorable themes and musical moods he has created. A case in point is the gloriously lush and heroic main title for Jurassic Park. Who knew dinosaurs could exude such nobility! Of course the writing here is also meat and drink to the Vienna Philharmonic with their horn section in particular revelling in the rich and effective scoring. But there is a balance to be found between stately grandeur and something a fraction sluggish. Williams in Boston and Kunzel in Cincinnati play this around 5:30, Williams in Vienna is now 6:03 and while that allows for some warmly ripe Viennese playing the result is fractionally lacking the sense of sweep attained in other versions. I felt similarly that the closing moments of the E.T. excerpts - elsewhere called The Departure - did not have the last degree of release or exaltation that say Kunzel and the Telarc engineers found. Make no mistake this is still very good and great fun to listen to but probably not "the only John Williams CD you will ever need". For that I would probably recommend the 4 CD set from Sony conducted by Williams; John Williams - The Great Movie Soundtracks. Especially since this set includes some of Williams' concert works as well. These Sony bargain sets include no notes but since there are none of real value in this new DG set nothing much is lost. Otherwise, a trawl through the Telarc/Kunzel recordings produces some sensational recordings.

The CD concludes - as indeed did the concert - with The Raider's March [Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark] which apparently includes Anne-Sophie Mutter "improvising" - she gets a track credit for her contribution. On the day I am sure that was part of the fun but for the domestic listener all that can be heard is a very minor bit of high noodling from her which is barely noticeable and adds little or indeed nothing to the music cue.

As mentioned, for a live concert the DG engineers have done a very good job. For whatever reason DG have never embraced the potential of SA-CD so this remains a good standard CD. Again, in direct comparison the engineering from Boston and certainly from Cincinnati is more viscerally cinematic, but this is still very good. I am not overly enamoured of DG's presentation of the disc as a whole. The disc is presented in a simple fold-out digipak with the liner tucked into the right hand sleeve. The font for the track listings is a bit fussy and not ideally clear with a mix of serif and sans-serif styles used which to my non-designer eye looks simply messy. The text of the liner is in English and German only but as previously pointed out says all but nothing about the music.

In no small way John Williams was responsible for the wider public rediscovering the power and impact of a sophisticated and complex film score written for full symphony orchestra. The fact that listeners of my generation can clearly remember the overwhelming effect of hearing Star Wars or Superman in the cinema some 43 years after the event is testament enough to the enduring quality of his work.

While this might not be a reference recording it is certainly a richly deserved tribute from a great orchestra to a great composer.

Nick Barnard



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