Music Webmaster Len Mullenger
FILM MUSIC RECORDINGS REVIEWS
|Collection: John WILLIAMS - CLOSE ENCOUNTERS - The Essential John Williams Film Music The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra; Crouch End Festival Chorus conducted by Paul Bateman and Nic Raine. SILVA SCREEN 2CD FILMXCD 314 [150:32]||
When looking over my notes after giving Close Encounters: The Essential John Williams Collection a first listen, I realized 'capable' was the word I repeatedly leaned on to describe the vast majority of the orchestra's performances. There are dozens of brass blunders, sometimes the woodwinds and percussion are a tad stale, the strings seem unable to inject an urgency when needed. One can find several better performances scattered elsewhere, yet for this album, and to add my say to a tired critic's cliché, I will argue the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Much has to do with the music itself, which is diverse, incredibly memorable, and accessible without ever pandering to a pop mentality. When industry professionals refer to John Williams as the Dean of Film Music, it is easy to see why. It is this blend of familiarity, innovation, and sheer emotional pull that defines John Williams as my favorite contemporary filmcomposer. I say this not to expose a personal bias (surely I am as objective as can be!), but to qualify my fondness for the music represented, and underrepresented, here. To have so much of his fine music in one set could be reason enough for one to praise Silva Screen's effort.
The discs depend heavily on previously released material, so there is little present to interest those who already have a sizable Williams collection. Some tracks are simply duplicates from past Silva Screen releases, and these generally suffer the weakest performances. However, tracks such as the end credits from "Born on the Fourth of July" and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" and the 'Main Theme' to "The Towering Inferno" receive performances that are about as choice as the originals. One of John Williams' most requested unpublished scores, "The Rare Breed," is a primary cause to purchase this album -- at nearly 20 minutes of previously unreleased, superb-rate filmusic, this is a genuine highlight. A few rarities liven the mix.
I do hear some specific problems. The disc suffers from the same predicament as the Goldsmith and Herrmann 'Essential' discs: the composer's quality output is far too large to limit to two discs. The City of Prague Philharmonic desperately needs a less lethargic and wheezy principal French horn, or someone to tell him to remove the carpet tacks from under his tongue. One may question the ideology behind having the Crouch End Festival Chorus perform 'Dry Your Tears, Afrika' from "Amistad," what is essentially an African anthem. The "Rare Breed" suite omits the delightful 'Main Title' -- with the obvious effort put into the suite, it is disappointing to see the cheery march cut...
Nonetheless, Close Encounters: The Essential John Williams Collection is the best John Williams compilation readily available today. It has my recommendation.
and another view from Rob Barnett
First and foremost this is an enjoyable and generous selection of life-enhancing music from Hollywood's most successful classic film music composer. The scores are melodious, memorable and often an ikon for their times. I cannot comment on the technical aspects of the orchestra's playing (and I have seen Ian's review of the same set) but I can speak about my response to the music and the pleasure these discs deliver. I will not tackle all the tracks but concentrate on the ones that made most impact.
Indiana Jones And the Temple Of Doom is given a beefy muscular performance with a nice sense of derring-do. The choral/orchestral 'Hymn' from Saving Pvt Ryan is classic stuff and emotionally done by the Praguers. The church hymn which I associate with the words 'The Head That Once Was Crowned With Thorns' is almost quoted directly and I cannot believe that this is just coincidence. The brass choir is dignified and the paean of the strings adds a dimension of delirious sadness to the proceedings. His piece and the film will always have very personal associations (long night drives from Cheshire to Ullapool, seeing the intensely moving film by myself one cold and black November afternoon at the UCI Westbrook Centre in Warrington, Ian Lace's kindness in introducing me to the piece) for me. This eloquent performance brings it all flooding back.
Hook is represented by the big theme (a track previously included on Silva's Swashbuckler's album) with its hushed urgency and intoxicating enchantment and by When You're Alone. The Cowboys I found too pobvious as music though the performance seems engaiging. In the Far West vein the freshly recorded suite for The Rare Breed seems more interesting - subtle even.
Towering Inferno is has a 1970s frenetic drive, Coplandian outdoor spirit and some of Leonard Bernstein's exuberance. Parts of this reminded me of the Dynasty theme. Amistad seems to emerge from the world of Portuguese Renaissance music and (if you remember it) the Missa Luba. The choir sound good. There are - no-stylistic clashes over the accent. The Superman theme is succulent and in quality and memorable impact is up there with John Barry's King Kong love theme. If Walton and Korngold haunt its pages that is no bad thing. They are benevolent ghosts.
I did not warm to The River though it has a compelling liquid slow-moving warmth and a trumpet solo of proto-bluesian somnolence. Black Sunday opens with a big-band Regerian fugue though perhaps fleeter of foot than the often ponderous Max. It is grandiose, grunting, crashing (startling clarity from the brass), Rite-influenced, very dense. The scherzo comprises some serious modernistic music. It is touched with the alert complexities of Alex North. The finale is a string anthem with plush Baxian and Sibelian overtones. This suite is the only track conducted by William Motzing. Speaking of which, I wish that Silva would make it easier for us to tell who conducts what for each track by perhaps entering this key detail against the annotation for the film in the booklet. Jaws clatters, moans amidst the rosiny vibrations of the double basses. The performance is alert as a whipcrack and points up its relationship with Stravinsky's Rite Of Spring.
The Star Wars suite opens with an unsubtle celebratory march over which a Korngoldian smile beams. The strings seem perhaps a bit thinner than on the other tracks. Holstian rumblings of Saturn and Mars resonates at end of the march. Superb stereophonic antiphony at the close - oh, those horns! Han Solo And The Princess misfires a little with a more liquid than ideal solo french horn. Here I could have wished the horn was less warbly (less slavonic) and more secure and 'clean' in tone. The black-hearted march that follows is a blacksheep cousin of John Ireland's Epic March (film music enthusiasts should hear this either on the Boult Lyrita LP or the Chandos CD). Here the horns sound more impressive despite a few dangerous moments.
The deep brass are well recorded in CETTK - characterful and tubby. I was not entirely convinced by the synthesiser which seemed lightweight by my recollections of the film. The Straussian (Richard) high meadows of the main title are well caught and the voices bring us to a Delian 'High Hills' ecstasy.
Presumed Innocent is somewhat gooey with Richard Clayderman solo piano but most un-Clayderman contributions from the strings. We should also note the string anthems of Born On the Fourth Of July and the French 1960s feel of the score with its rather strange synthesised piano. The Schindler's List music makes for a tender, boundlessly sad, lullaby - love story. The disc ends in the rather overlong and brash music from Indiana Jones And Last Crusade. It has its moments but is not out of the Williams top-drawer.
Silva have again chosen well in using a single width CD case for two discs. Good notes - these (and all Silva's other notes) should be published with Silva's other notes or even added to the Silva website for easy reference. As mentioned above it would have been nice if in the booklet each track would have been list identifying the involvement of Raine or Bateman. You can find this information in small print inside the back cover but they make you work hard. It would be better if this was done on a basis more explicit and user friendly.
A yea-saying and feel-good collection which I recommend.
And Ian Lace adds a sting in the tail:-
This review of Silva's John Williams collection sits nicely between the two new albums from Varèse Sarabande. For me, it is inferior to the Royal Scottish National Orchestra's collection; but vastly superior to V.S.'s Superman collection.
I urge Silva Screen to follow the practice of the majority of recording companies by stating on its packaging when selections are reissued. A significant number of them, on this 2CD set, had previously appeared on earlier Silva albums. This is where the difficulty rises. The Prague Philharmonic has gradually been improving the quality of its playing over the last few years until they are now beginning to become quite proficient in the world of film music. But some of the selections on these discs - recordings which are now several years old - show many earlier weaknesses in respect of tempi and suspect intonation and ensemble. Superman's love music, for instance, sounds rather turgid. To expand the metaphor I used in the Superman collection review below it hardly floats or flies, and surely Superman and his Lois would have crashed into the same skyscraper but a few stories further up?
John Williams is the master interpreter of his own music. Readings from other conductors face extreme challenges and many fail conspicuously. It therefore begs the question why bother to issue such a collection anyway when 80% of this material is available conducted by the Maestro himself? One could argue that a collection of this kind is a valuable introduction to the composer's music for people new to film music but again I must question the term 'Essential' in the title of this album. From this assertion, I infer it is a representative collection. Nowhere, however, do we have any music for the smaller scale romances - for the more intimatedomestic dramas such as The Accidental Tourist and Stanley and Iris - both wonderful scores and both conspicuously missing.
Of course, on the positive side, this collection does include some material which would be impossible or downright difficult to obtain elsewhere such as music from The River, Black Sunday Family Plot, The Cowboys and The Rare Breed.
'Sorry Silva, but you can't win them all.
Jeffrey Wheeler adds a further comment
'I agree with Ian on all his points, but I postulate that anyone who knows and enjoys Silva Screen's past compilation work is aware of the propensity for flaws, so they come as absolutely no surprise. Those who are unaware probably have little interest in the technicalities anyway. And emphasizing the strengths of this set (which, in my mind, outweigh the weaknesses) is the only critical avenue available considering that no matter how Silva Screen produced the album they would still need The Essential John Williams Collection Vol. 2, 3, 4, and 5 to start scratching the surface. It is less a matter of what it could have been or what it intends to be than it is a matter of what it simply is. (If that makes any discernible sense.)
Side Note: Most of the orchestrations on the album are John Williams' only, a point of some confusion that apparently led to some credit errors. This is ridiculous, with items like Herbert Spencer orchestrating "Amistad" seven years after his death, for example.'
RIGHT TO REPLY
While not necessarily agreeing with all the views I feel that some fair points are made in the basic review, although calling the Orchestra in the footnote, "quite proficient" I feel is rather harsh! I certainly do agree that over the years the orchestra have been getting much better, having now been able to select the players I want, and that some of the older recordings are not up to the superb standard shown in THE RARE BREED, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and AMISTAD.
On a factual note, I did not include the "Main Title" of THE RARE BREED in the "symphonic suite", as this is really a piece of "source music" composed by Williams for a small marching band which just did not sit easily with the rest of the material.
James Fitzpatrick, SILVA SCREEN
OK - I relent and will say that the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra are much better now Ian Lace
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