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  • Composed by James Horner
  • Mercury Classics / 2016 / 77m

I’ve written it before, but it’s worth repeating that one of the many sad things about the death of James Horner in 2015 was that he had obviously acquired a fresh zest for writing music in the year or two beforehand.  Having fallen out of love with Hollywood and the processes surrounding composing film scores – he just wanted to write music, not get involved in politics and have so many masters to serve – he found other avenues that allowed him to write the sort of music he loved: building fresh relationships with a new set of directors, working on films outside Hollywood and also in the concert hall.

After his double concerto for violin and cello Pas de Deux, his next commission was a piece for four French horns and orchestra, which he called Collage and which premiered in London in March 2015.  A studio recording was made at the same time under the composer’s supervision and it was planned that his next work – either a choral work or a ballet – would later be recorded and included on the same album.  Sadly, of course that never happened.

James Horner

James Horner

In the summer of 2016, Horner’s long-time collaborator and friend Simon Rhodes produced some new recordings of the composer’s film music to include on the album alongside the main work (which runs for only just over twenty minutes) and in fact it is those recordings, performed by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of David Arnold (not that David Arnold), that open the album.

Most intriguing is the inclusion of two pieces (presumably the whole score) from First in Flight, a 2012 student film Horner agreed to score for free thanks to his love of flying.  While fully orchestrated, there was no budget so the score in the film is realised by samples – so this album recording was the first time these two pieces had been recorded by an orchestra.  To say they are both typical Horner would be an understatement – so much about what made him who he was is there in both of them.

“Conquest of the Air” opens with a twinkly piano motif, beautiful and pastoral, before a lilting melody appears for pennywhistle and then the strings take off with the gorgeous, soaring main theme.  There’s a B-section where the horns shine, the A-section is heard not just for strings but briefly also for oboes, even the danger motif finds its way in there in surely the warmest arrangement of its long life.  There’s a second theme too, closely related to one for Deep Impact, which wraps up the first piece.  In “Kitty Hawk”, which runs for ten minutes, Horner revisits all three of those ideas at some length, adds another (vaguely reminiscent of Braveheart, but not a direct lift) and it’s really quite wonderful, the warmest aspects of all of his music distilled into the fifteen minutes of these two pieces – what a gift it must have been for the film’s young director Brandon Hess.  Both pieces go straight on to the “Best of Horner” playlist…

Sandwiched between those two cues (rather oddly – surely they would have been better placed together) come two other pieces.  The first is “The Ludlows” from Legends of the Fall, which is presented very faithfully – it’s one of Horner’s most wonderful creations, the incredible warmth of the central string melody like his own take on Dances With Wolves mixed with the soaring emotion of Cocoon, the pastoral beauty of the piano at the start and fiddle at the end perhaps the finest example of a sound the composer explored throughout his career.  Film music just doesn’t get better – it’s descriptive, emotional, melodically untouchable, one of the most wonderful pieces James Horner ever wrote.

While most of the film music selections are very faithful to the original scores, “Jose’s Martyrdom” from For Greater Glory is the exception, replacing the distinctive vocals performed so beautifully by Clara Sanabras on the original recording with parts for violin and cello, performed by Mari and Hakon Samuelsen, who of course were the performers of Pas de Deux.  Their passionate playing is remarkable but the real star is the stunning melody from what is possibly the composer’s most underrated score.  Full of emotion, heartbreakingly moving, it makes the hairs on your neck stand on end.

Two pieces from Wolf Totem, one of Horner’s final works, are included, “Little Wolf” and “Return to the Wild”, both unaltered from the original recordings.  Such a wonderful piece of work, the score quickly became one of my very favourites by the composer (which is saying something) and I can’t count how many times I’ve listened to the wonderful soundtrack album.  The lilting main theme, the playful material of the first cue (including the composer’s final nod towards the Russian masters who inspired some of his best music), the epic (and so typically Horner) sweep of the second – it’s just so good.

The final two film music selections are perhaps a little more curious in their inclusion, for different reasons.  The theme from Iris is very beautiful indeed, but is a very thinly-veiled reworking of Vaughan Williams’s “The Lark Ascending” (a fact even alluded to in this album’s liner notes).  Mari Samuelsen’s playing is exemplary, the pastoral sound fits right in with most of the album’s other music and of course no overview of James Horner’s career could fail to mention the occasions when he appropriated past masterpieces into his own music (something I came to terms with long ago and no longer have a problem with) but I can’t help but wonder whether, despite that, something more original might have been chosen instead.

Next comes what is billed as “Suite No. 1” from Aliens (apparently there is a “Suite No. 2” prepared for the concert hall, too).  It’s essentially a twelve-minute combination of the main title and “Ripley’s Rescue” – again there’s the issue that the most striking part of the former is essentially by Aram Khachaturian, but also tonally the piece is so far removed from everything else on the album, though it does give the horn players a chance to shine.  I have to say – even ignoring that – it lacks the punch of the original recording, thrilling though it undoubtedly is.

After all that, finally we arrive at the main event, Collage, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jaime Martin.  The quartet of horn players are David Pyatt, John Ryan, Jim Thatcher and Richard Watkins.  Unlike Pas de Deux it’s a single-movement work (rather mystifyingly indexed into six different tracks on the album) but like that, it is easy to conceive it as another tone poem to the natural world, this time not lush summery meadows but a more jagged, angular mountain environment, with crashing waterfalls and the occasional avalanche.

The piece begins with just one of the horns, gently introducing a five-note theme that will run throughout before the others join in a kind of chorale – the harmonies are predictably beautiful.  Then the strings join in, shimmering away, a gentle touch from the xylophone and celesta like a gently flowing stream, momentum gaining all the time as all those components come together, that central motif never far away.  Around half-way through comes another motif, this time more outwardly emotional and it leads into the final one, a real crowd-pleaser for piano and of course the horns which is like a flourishing fanfare similar to some of the early science fiction scores by the composer.  When you first hear it you think that it’s inevitable that it will lead up to some grand statement at some point later which will blow the roof off, which in truth it never really does, but the finale to the piece is certainly never going to be accused of being subtle, the orchestra unleashed into a veritable cacophony as the main material is reprised in some style.

Collage is not on the same level as Pas de Deux, but it’s doubtful that many fans of James Horner will do anything other than greatly enjoy it.  (If anything it’s more like Flight, the concert piece repurposed from its original use as music for an aerobatic display team, without that work’s soaring melodies.)  It’s beautiful for sure, powerful at some points, the string writing is wonderfully fluid and the horn is an instrument this composer always wrote for so well (having played it himself in his youth) but it never really develops its ideas, with a feeling of meandering in between restatements rather than developments of the central motifs.  Predictably it was panned by the classical critics after its concert debut (as virtually every piece of concert music by every film composer always is); I do have some sympathy with the view that there is under-development of the material, but it is so tonally rich, the orchestration so florid, it’s very easy to have a great time with it anyway.  Add in the film music selections, particularly the wonderful treat that is First in Flight, and you end up with a delightful album.

Rating: ****

See also:
Flight James Horner
Pas de Deux James Horner | |

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  1. Aidabaida (Reply) on Monday 17 October, 2016 at 18:48

    When I read this, “Predictably it was panned by the classical critics after its concert debut (as virtually every piece of concert music by every film composer always is);”, I prickled like a porcupine.

    Anyway, can’t wait to hear this!

  2. T. Webb (Reply) on Tuesday 18 October, 2016 at 00:32

    James, thank you for this review Odyssey… I truly enjoy each of your entries, regardless of whether it is one of my favorites, one that’s just okay, or one that I look forward to getting acquainted with. I too still miss Horner… I’m also glad to hear that I’m not the only one who is still playing “Wolf Totem” with frequency!

  3. J.B. (Reply) on Tuesday 18 October, 2016 at 02:05

    Thanks for the review, James. Very much enjoying your Horner Odyssey.

  4. Adam (Reply) on Tuesday 18 October, 2016 at 06:24

    Excellent well balanced review James.

  5. Luc Van der Eeken (Reply) on Tuesday 18 October, 2016 at 17:52

    His music for ‘Wolf Totem” is heartbreaking and that last cue ‘Return to the Wild’ gets me every single time. I’m crying like a baby with that cue and I’m not ashamed to admit that. It has almost become synonymous with his death, (film)music at its very best. Keep the reviews coming, James. And while you’re at it, do you have a review ready for ‘Pete’s Dragon’ because that’s the biggest surprise of the year for me? And it has a bit of a Horner vibe going.