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James Horner – The Classics
  • Composed by James Horner
  • Sony Classical / 64m

I enjoyed last year’s Hans Zimmer – The Classics album, which saw a selection of Sony Classical artists offering their takes on various themes by Zimmer, often in radically-altered arrangements compared with the originals.  Zimmer’s music obviously lends itself to such treatments – the melodies can be taken out and given new settings readily enough.  I was excited by the prospect of a similar album for James Horner, released to coincide with what would have been his 65th birthday – even though it seemed a much more difficult prospect to pull off, given that the incredibly deliberate and careful orchestration is so much of what makes Horner’s music what it is.

While some of the tracks on this album certainly do reach soaring heights, unfortunately there is also an awful lot which simply doesn’t work.  Most cues are performed by the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Robert Ziegler and it’s fair to say it is not the finest hour of either the orchestra or its conductor.  The exception are two tracks by 2Cellos which were not recorded for this album – they’re taken from their last album, Score – and they are amongst the worst.  “My Heart Will Go On” opens the album and is nothing more than glossy muzak – it’s a great tune but this is just an orchestral take on the song with no attempt to make it work as an orchestral piece of music.  It reminds me of those “Royal Philharmonic Orchestra plays the hits of Phil Collins” albums that were bizarrely popular in the 1990s.

James Horner

Even worse is “For the Love of a Princess” from Braveheart.  It’s arguably not just the most beautiful piece that Horner ever wrote, you could certainly make a convincing case that it’s the most beautiful piece of film music that anyone’s ever written – but while the Holst-inspired melody may be present in this version, the charm most certainly isn’t.  It’s far too showy, the melody is altered presumptuously, the tremolo strings so completely pivotal to the piece’s power absent completely.  When I was about six I mistakenly persuaded my parents to buy what I thought was an Elvis Presley album while we were on holiday in Spain (I was obsessed by Elvis at the time) – we got home and I finally got to play it, and it turned out to be an Elvis impersonator, singing in Spanish.  This piece reminds me a bit of that – you can tell what it once was and you can gloss it up all you like, but ultimately it doesn’t matter how much lipstick you put on a pig, it’s still a pig.  Even that can’t compare with the album’s nadir, the theme from Willow, given an extraordinarily bizarre rearrangement for saxophone.  And the completely inappropriate saxophone is only just about the worst thing about it, with the orchestral arrangement and performance being completely limp and the tacked-on ending being about the least James Horner-like ending you could ever hear.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are four or five tracks which are really very impressive.  The first of them to appear is cellist Tina Guo’s take on the theme from Cocoon – it remains true to the spirit of the original and her performance is exquisite, a million miles away from some of the style-over-substance to be found elsewhere.  The two tracks from Avatar are also very well done (perhaps no coincidence given that they were arranged by Simon Rhodes – as far as I can tell, the only pieces here which had any direct involvement from a member of Horner’s own music team).  First it’s Guo again with an arrangement of the love theme – while it was turned into a song (“I See You”) for the film and this track has that title, unlike the nightmarish “My Heart Will Go On” earlier on the album, this is no elevator music – it’s a proper arrangement of the underlying theme itself, not just a reorchestration of the song, and I love it.

The same score’s “Jake’s First Flight” will perhaps be a more controversial selection – the featured soloists are The Piano Guys and Rhodes’s arrangement certainly has its quirks but I think it works surprisingly well.  This sort of creative reinterpretation is what I imagined the whole album would be more like.  (It does get let down a bit by another surprisingly limp orchestral performance behind the soloists.)  I like harpist Lavinia Meijer’s “Rooftop Kiss” from The Amazing Spider-Man, with the harp replacing the piano of the original; it’s tender and lovely and probably boosted immeasurably by the dodgy orchestra not having a great deal to do.  Finally there’s the album’s finale, the most unexpected piece to be featured, which is “Briseis and Achilles” from Troy – essentially a lengthy take on the score’s Vaughan Williams-inspired love theme, it’s really gorgeous and nicely played by violinist Lindsey Stirling.

In between the two extremes, the rest of the cues are various shades of OK.  Craig Ogden’s guitar performance of themes from Field of Dreams doesn’t venture anywhere away from the original arrangements and is nicely done, probably the pick of the best of the rest.  Two tracks featuring trumpeter David Elton are more mixed – the main title from Star Trek II isn’t that bad but does sound like people going through the motions a bit; Apollo 13 is not as good, with the glossy performance seemingly missing the whole point of the original’s very deliberate musical depiction of an everyman hero.

Harpist Meijer returns for An American Tail, along with saxophonist Amy Dickson, who fares infinitely better here in a charming rendition of “Somewhere Out There”.  I’m sure many people would pick “The Ludlows” from Legends of the Fall as their favourite Horner track and it gets a faithful rendition from violinist Stirling – it’s not as good as the original performance, but at least it’s not ruined.  “Boys Playing Airplanes” from The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is rather odd – for quite a while it’s not at all clear what on earth it’s meant to be, with pianist Alexis Ffrench not so much taking liberties with the source material, rather writing some all-new material.  Eventually the Horner melody (if indeed it is by him – it has always sounded rather suspiciously like something else, since it was heard in Swing Kids, but I’ve never been able to place it) does reveal itself in a rather floral, playful arrangement that seems rather well-advised considering the film is about the holocaust.

So, the album veers from the sublime to the ridiculous and pretty much everywhere in between.  A compilation of these 14 pieces taken from the original recordings could legitimately be called James Horner – The Classics – some of these arrangements suggest that the project didn’t really have anyone on board in a supervisory capacity who truly understood Horner’s music and what made it what it was (with the exception of the two pieces arranged by Rhodes).  Despite this there are several very impressive pieces contained in here, but – despite, I’m sure, the best of intentions – if this was meant to serve as a tribute to the composer then it falls really rather short of that and I’m sure he would have been horrified at parts of it.  The Hans Zimmer album wasn’t an unqualified success but overall it did work and I’m sure there are other film composers that this concept could be done very well with (Ennio Morricone most obviously – preferably with his involvement) – for James Horner, a more straightforward re-recording of his works (as heard on the first half of the Collage album – notably, that one was very much produced by the composer’s own team) would probably have made a much more fitting tribute.

Rating: ** | |

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  1. Mark (Reply) on Monday 20 August, 2018 at 23:29

    You’re right about Morricone being a great candidate for a project like this – but we already had that – the ‘We All Love Morricone’ album, which he was thankfully involved in.

    • James Southall (Reply) on Tuesday 21 August, 2018 at 12:24

      I forgot about that. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever heard it.

  2. James Poremba (Reply) on Monday 22 February, 2021 at 23:11

    I pretty much agree with this review. I couldn’t really decide if I liked or disliked Elton’s additional flourishes on the trumpet on the Apollo 13 cue. I felt like it took me out of what it was meant to be. I found Horner was a master with the brass (like Goldsmith) and he knew how to write very specific emotions for those instruments and those additions add nothing to the original.

    Like you, I also found the Willow rendition to be horrendous when that Sax came in. I had to listen to the original just to clean my auditory palette. I thought Cocoon was the best piece on the album. Stirring with the Cello front and center.

    Thanks for the review!