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Across the Stars
  • Composed by John Williams
  • Deutsche Grammophon / 83m

John Williams has developed an incredible canon of film music in his long career and there are numerous albums devoted to it quite apart from all the soundtrack recordings. Wonderfully, he adapts themes from most of his scores into arrangements to be heard in concert and it is generally these that we hear on the compilations – but it’s very rare that we hear anything radically different from the full orchestral arrangements.

A few years ago the great Anne-Sophie Mutter asked him to write a piece for her (“Markings”) and from that collaboration she had the idea of recording a whole album of arrangements of his film themes rearranged for violin and orchestra – and hence Across the Stars was born.

Anne-Sophie Mutter and John Williams

While he has of course written various film scores which feature prominent roles for soloists, most of his famous themes are scored for full orchestra and part of their joy is in the orchestral colour which tends to be painted in the most intricate detail. Rearranging them for violin and orchestra would therefore be a delicate balancing act for the composer – of course the rich melodies themselves would always be able to stand up to such treatment, but getting the balance right of highlighting the soloist without removing too much of the rich detail from the orchestration would always be a challenge.

One of my very favourite film music recordings is an album a few years ago featuring Yo-Yo Ma playing Ennio Morricone music – all of that disc was heavily rearranged by Morricone for cello and orchestra, but it was a very different beast – Morricone and Williams could hardly be more different composers, and the Italian’s music was always going to be more obviously well-suited to such a treatment. So – set your expectations accordingly – while you may enjoy this album a lot, don’t go in expecting another Ma/Morricone-level one, because whatever it is, it certainly isn’t that.

The track selection contains some predictable ones, some much less so. It starts with the composer’s most brilliant film theme of this century – “Rey’s Theme” from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. You can infer from that piece basically what the album is going to entail – a very (very) showy performance by Mutter, technically brilliant of course but perhaps so florid as to become very slightly exhausting. You don’t quite realise it as things start – listening to the first cue is like eating an exquisite dessert – so rich and wonderful – then the second cue comes along and you think wow, another one – after four or five you’re starting to feel so bloated you’d probably better leave it a couple of hours before going back for more.

So, with that out the way, I should say that taken on their own terms, as individual pieces these are absolutely wonderful. Some of the most familiar pieces are somewhat similar to the original versions, just with the melodic line replaced by solo violin – “Yoda’s Theme”, “Sayuri’s Theme”, “Luke and Leia”, “A Prayer for Piece”. The theme from Schindler’s List is as it has always been; the theme from Sabrina is as it was arranged on Williams’s Cinema Serenade album. (Both of those original performances came from Itzhak Perlman and it’s interest how different the two virtuosos sound – both brilliant, but familiarity will probably mean the Perlman versions will remain most people’s go-tos.)

A couple of the really famous pieces are rearranged more substantially – “Hedwig’s Theme” doesn’t really work for me in this form (it goes on forever), “Princess Leia’s Theme” is much more successful in a very different setting. “Remembrances” from Schindler’s List gets a new arrangement from Williams (not going for the easy option of just rolling out the familiar one) and is quite exquisite. “Across the Stars” itself sounds rapturous in this form – one of the composer’s most touching melodies (sadly written to accompany one of cinema’s most grating romances).

Some of the greatest pleasures on the album come from the pieces that are far less predictable in their inclusion – “Donnybrook Fair” (based on “Blowing Off Steam” from Far and Away) is witty and wonderful, “The Chairman’s Waltz” from Memoirs of a Geisha features the most exceptional duet between Mutter and Lynn Harrell on cello, the instruments seeming to be dancing with each other (appropriately enough). I doubt anyone would have thought of “Nice to Be Around” from Cinderella Liberty as being a piece to be included here – nobody that is except for the late André Previn, who apparently suggested it. Almost certainly the least familiar piece on the album to most listeners (including me), I’d never really noticed the similarity to “The Windmills of Your Mind” at times in it before now – which doesn’t stop it being lovely.

Arguably the two finest pieces on the album fall into the “less familiar” category too. Williams fanatics will be very familiar with them, of course, but to the mass market this is being aimed at I suspect “The Duel” from The Adventures of Tintin and “Night Journeys” from Dracula will not be pieces they will have heard before. And to tell the truth, they will probably be revelatory even to the Williams fanatics. “The Duel” is brilliantly done but “Night Journeys” is right from the top drawer, achieving an intensity that enhances the gothic horror feel of the piece even beyond its original version.

We also get the first release of any kind of “Markings”, the piece Williams wrote for Mutter which started this collaboration off. It’s in keeping with much of the composer’s concert music, which is to say it is a fascinating examination of orchestral colours, technically beyond reproach – and steadfastly devoid of any kind of melodic hook that would ever attract those of us plebs who love his music primarily because of all its extraordinary themes.

A bizarre exercise from Deutsche Grammophon saw twelve cues be released on an initial album before a deluxe edition came along shortly after with an additional five – I really don’t understand the point of the first album and hope not many were fooled into buying it before realising they’d have to part with their money again to get the unarguably superior second version. The deluxe edition also features a bonus DVD (remember those?) with a conversation between composer and soloist. (Included on neither edition are two pieces that were spoken about while the recording sessions were going on – “The Devil’s Dance” from The Witches of Eastwick, which Mutter said she didn’t quite have time to learn for the recording – she has since played it in concert a couple of times – and “Han Solo and the Princess”, whose most recent concert arrangement has never been recorded, so it’s a real shame that one didn’t make it.)

As I said earlier, this functions better as a set of individual pieces which can be enjoyed in smaller doses than it does an album to be played through, but there’s no denying how handsome Mutter’s playing is and Williams’s music sparkles as ever in some nice, fresh arrangements. It took a while to grow on me, but grow on me it has.

Rating: ****

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  1. Edmund Meinerts (Reply) on Tuesday 1 October, 2019 at 15:23

    Perhaps “Han Solo and the Princess” didn’t make the cut because putting that theme into solo violin would only serve to make it sound even more like Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto which Mutter has already played? 😉

    https://youtu.be/I9P79-1_iGU?t=70

    (Just kidding around, of course. :p )